There’s a unit set; some marble flags, a few broken columns surrounding a “fire pit”. Even this is stripped down for much of Act 2 which takes place on the stage apron in front of a plain curtain. There are five singers, a chorus and an orchestra. That, plus Peter Sellars, is all it takes to produce an extraordinary piece of music drama.
Hercules isn’t Handel’s best known oratorio and it doesn’t have the most felicitous libretto or the most hummable tunes but, as Sellars has recognised, in its roots in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis it has a universality that speaks to us down the ages. It’s about the damage done to those who go to war and those who wait at home for them. It doesn’t much matter whether the war is at Troy or in Afghanistan or, as here, Oechalia. This is emphasised in the production by a sort of temporal ambiguity. The costumes are a mix of modern combat fatigues and clothes that could be almost anywhere, anytime.
The plot is simple enough. Dejanira, wife of Hercules, laments her absent husband. Her crippled son vows to scour the earth for news. At this point, the herald Lychas announces the return of the victorious Hercules and his troops. With him he brings the captive princess Iole; first seen by us hooded, bound and in an orange jump suit. She sings not of despair but of the nobility of Liberty. Hercules frees her. Hyllas falls in love with her. Hercules is a damaged man. He cannot easily resume his former intimacy with Dejanira. She is convinced that he has transferred his affections to the beautiful Iole. When Hercules leaves to sacrifice to the Gods, Dejanira prepares a shirt, given to her by the dying Nessus, who promised that it had the power to restore lost love. Lychas takes it to the temple where hercules puts it on. It’s a trick. The shirt is poisoned. Hercules dies in agony and Nessus has his revenge. Dejanira is distraught with grief and guilt. In one of the most beautiful arias of the work Iole comforts her. Life goes on but it can never be the same.
The Toronto production of Hercules saw the same cast as at the Chicago Lyric. Eric Owens sang the title role. It’s one of the cunning features of the piece that the central character has not much to do. I think he has three arias. But each was earth shattering. This man is a force of nature. Dejanira was acted and sung with a marvellous range of emotion, mood, tone and colour by the splendid Alice Coote. And then there was Lucy Crowe;s Iole. Not only did she really bring the role to life but she produced some of the love;liest lyric soprano singing I have ever heard. There was complete precision of diction and a gorgeous sweetness of tone right up to the very top of her upper register. Quite breathtaking actually. The cast was completed by two stalwart veterans of Sellars’ Handel projects; David Daniels and Richard Croft. Perhaps the bloom is off the voices a bit but they remain extraordinarily good singing actors. Croft’s physical acting in bringing to life the crippled Hyllas was something to see.
The COC chorus was on terrific form too. Sellars knows how to direct a chorus and they responded. Even gestures that might seem a little cliched took on life here and they sang with the beauty and precision we have come to expect. Harry Bicket conducted a much reduced COC Orchestra with considerable flair. He never let things drag but there were some extremely effective pauses that suggested a very close collaboration between director and conductor. Last, but not least, James Ingalls’ highly imaginative lighting design turned the simple unit set into a thing of beauty. This production is a feast for the eye as well as the ear, and above all the soul. The Athenians believed that the theatre wan’t just for entertainment but to make us better citizens by forcing us to explore the consequences of the decisions we or our representatives make. Sellars shows us, 2500 years later, that that concept is still relevant and, parenthetically perhaps, why modern politicians hate the arts so much.
Do go and see this. Music theatre doesn’t get much better and this is a cast and production that would grace any stage in the world. If you do, you might want to think about seeing it from one of the Rings rather than the orchestra. Unusually, that’s where the critics were seated last night (we were in Ring 4) and I can see that the stage might look more effective from higher up. I’m back on Friday to have a look from lower down. There are six more performances between now and April 30th.