Hercules, George Frideric Handel’s acutely dramatic opera/oratorio, enjoyed a meagre six performances during the composer’s lifetime. Premiering in January, 1745 at London’s King’s Theatre, the startling new choral hybrid met with a less than half full house. The historical record brims with theories to explain the spectacular collapse of what has since come to be regarded as one of Handel’s most daring masterpieces. The principal soprano fell ill. Tickets were only available via subscription. West End audiences had better ways to amuse themselves on a Saturday night. The suggestion that rings the truest, however, centres on Handel’s choice of theme.
The Greek myth referenced by librettist Rev. Thomas Broughton featured none of the thrilling exploits popularly associated with the semi-divine superhero, son of Zeus, strongman to the gods. The Hercules that made his first entrance on Handel’s stage was a broken warrior, a survivor of bloody conflict, emotionally brutalized. Transplanting the essential text of Sophocles’ lesser-known tragedy, Women of Trachis, to musical theatre, Handel focused less on daring deeds, more on war’s psychic carnage. This was unblinking story-telling presented in unburnished concert form, stark and groundbreaking for its time.
Fast forward to 2014. Suddenly, Handel’s shunned allegory seems all too painfully familiar.
The Canadian Opera Company’s remounted production of Hercules, first directed by Peter Sellars for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2011, vividly evokes the human tragedy of post traumatic stress shared by disturbing numbers of modern day combat veterans. The unending nightmare of Afghanistan and Iraq haunts the stage.
Sellars offers a startling reassessment of Handel’s Hercules, dramatically shrinking the distance between history, myth and headline news. It is a remarkable vision, powerful and compelling.
Hercules, a battle-hardened commander, returns to his native land of Trachis after laying waste the foreign kingdom of Oechalia. His wife, Dejanira, and son, Hyllus, have been anxiously awaiting him, wracked with worry, fearful of what lies ahead. An advance guard deposits a surprise on their doorstep, a beautiful princess taken prisoner by the rampaging general, his enemy’s daughter, Iole. Family, captive, hero, all are shattered by the wrenching chain of events war has unleashed. Their lives are in upheaval. Retreating deeper and deeper into silence, Hercules is unable to purge himself of the horrors he has both seen and committed. A grimly cheerful barbeque is held, a beer-fuelled toast to his glory years past and present. Hercules tactlessly courts Iole’s attention, seeking comfort and distraction in her physical presence. Iole recoils from his advances. Dejanira grows enraged. The presence of the foreign princess in her household is an insult to her as a woman and wife. Faithful herald Lichas, guardian of the general’s reputation, does his best to repair the ugly rift between Hercules and Dejanira but jealousy his sown its seeds. Bitterness has taken root.
Hyllus, in love with Iole since her arrival, begs her to marry him. A still traumatized Iole declines. Hercules and Dejanira quarrel, their mutual inability to recognize each other’s demons fanning the flames of savage recrimination and name-calling. Hercules storms off into the night to be alone. Dejanira is wracked with despair. If only she could win back her husband’s love. A strange idea takes shape in her mind. Long years before, Hercules had slain the centaur Nessus who had attempted to abduct her. As he lay dying, the treacherous creature instructed Dejanira to collect his blood, a magical substance able to revive extinguished passion. Rubbing the potion into the lining of a newly purchased jacket, Dejanira gives the charmed garment to Lichas with instructions that Hercules is to wear it as a token of her respect. Fate, however, upsets her plans. Unbeknownst to Dejanira, the centaur blood she had thought would restore her happiness is a vicious poison with the power to melt flesh. Wrapped in her toxic gift, Hercules suffers a hideous death. The evil Nessus has his revenge. Dejanira, consumed by guilt, decides to end her life. Iole intervenes. A new day of forgiveness dawns. Hercules’ coffin is born to a nearby mountaintop. Hyllus and Iole join hands. All in attendance weep for what was and is and must never be again.
Sellars’ Hercules is a domestic nightmare. Burgers sizzle on a barbeque. Harsh words crackle like sparks. Paranoia looms in the shadows. Booze and pills blur night and day. Peace-time is laced with terror. A whiff of violence hangs in the heavy summer air. Family and friends are strangers. Inaction is torture for Hercules. Sellars winds his characters as tight as mainsprings until suddenly they snap. It is beyond impossible to watch this pageant of human suffering free of feelings of overwhelming sadness. The genius and miracle both of Sellars’ approach to this very modern, very targeted Hercules is the manner in which Handel’s text is simultaneously illuminated and revered. Where things begin to go annoyingly wrong is the point at which the production’s moving theatricality intersects with its shakier musical values.
The irresistible garage band sound so characteristic of specialized ensembles playing on period instruments has been consciously rejected here in favour of the more blended, highly processed tone of a modern orchestra. The energy, spontaneity, even excitement, of the edgy early music movement is very much missed. The addition of a single theorbo and harpsichord is hardly a Baroque makeover. Handel’s score is exquisitely refined certainly but more often than not conductor Harry Bickett over-homogenizes harmonies losing a good deal of Handel’s calculated dark dissonance in the process. Tempi are downright languorous at times. Dejanira’s celebrated aria, Resign thy club and lion’s spoils, is more weary harangue than crisp, syncopated rant.
Singing the role of Hercules’ tortured spouse, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote adopts a lean, virtually unornamented vocal strategy frequently at odds with the vast number of explosive da capo arias Handel generously grants her. It is a jarring tactic, one that does little to support characterization. Dejanira is a complex being, by far the most three dimensional personality in George Frideric’s cast. A flood of rage, repression and regret tears through her like a riptide revealed in a more or less unbroken stream of melting legato, frenzied cadences and breathless runs. Coote’s minimalism is distinctly counter-productive, denying far too many opportunities for expression than can be generously overlooked. Only in moments of stark arioso and accompanied recitative does her contemporized sound bite deep. Coote’s rendition of Dejanira’s frantic, Where shall I fly? Where hide this guilty head? is pure panic and torment in a performance otherwise disappointingly flattened.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens as Hercules struggles with his own Baroque musical challenge. Trills invariably disintegrate in mid-execution. The fault becomes all the more pronounced when the opera’s namesake character commands a mere three arias during the course of the entire work.
In a rare appearance as a comprimario artist, countertenor David Daniels presents a decidedly vocally withheld Lichas, untypically modest in both the dimension of his singing and his stylings. Tenor Richard Croft is an earnest Hyllus.
By far the brightest vocal presence on stage is Lucy Crowe’s dazzling Iole. With her porcelain-pure tone and translucent coloratura, this superb British soprano injects great beauty and towering emotion into the otherwise uneven musical proceedings. How blest the maid ordained to dwell, Iole’s heartbreaking murmur, a fleeting scrap of happiness all but smothered by agonizing memories of her father’s death, is given inexpressibly touching voice. Crowe’s performance is a triumph, a model of intensity and radiance unrivalled onstage.
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus raises a formidable wall of sound, presenting an eclectic panorama of Middle Eastern tribeswomen, American troops in digi-camo fatigues intermixed with a casual assortment of anonymous civilians. Gesture and pose play an active part in Sellars’ attempt to animate the group, a nod presumably to classic Greek tragedy. The results are hugely distracting, silly, trivial and embarrassingly out of place.
None of these realities, however upsetting, is necessarily fatal to this Hercules but prolonged exposure to its full catalogue of shortcomings over the course of the opera’s three-hour running time has the effect of chipping away at the production’s integrity. The aggravation quotient inevitably mounts. There is much to admire here. And much to fault. The creative intention is inspired — a fusing of Peter Sellar’s sharp dramatic instincts with the brilliance of Handel’s score. But the two never quite meet.