Here’s another fine example of how well Handel’s oratorios can work when staged. It’s a recording of Hercules made at Paris’ Palais Garnier in 2004. The staging is by Luc Bondy and William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are joined by a youngish cast of extremely good singers. It’s compelling stuff. I think what, for me, makes the oratorios much more interesting than most of Handel’s opera seria is structural. The operas tend to alternate recit and da capo aria with maybe a duet or chorus to close an act but they are pretty predictable. In the oratorios Handel makes much more use of ensembles and the chorus and, for me, that’s vastly preferable.
Hercules is based on Sophocles’ Women of Trachis. It concerns Hercules return from his final military exploit; the destruction Of Euboean Oechalia. In tow, he has the captive princess Iole who may, or may not, have been the cause de guerre. His wife Dejanira becomes mad with jealousy despite Iole’s protestations that she’s not Hercules’ lover (1). Eventually Dejanira, believing that it will restore Hercules’ love sends them the magic robe she acquired from the centaur Nessus. Unfortunately it’s a potent potion that causes Hercules to die in horrible agony. Dejanira goes mad with remorse even though Jove decrees Hercules elevation to godhood and proclaims the marriage of his son Hyllus with Iole. It’s a happy ending, maybe.
In this recording Dejanira is played by Joyce DiDonato. She’s extraordinary. Her jealousy in Act 2 is fierce. Hercules sings his aria “Alcides name in latest story” proclaiming his fame and his merits. The faces on Joyce and the ladies of the chorus just scream “You are so far up yourself Mister” and then she launches into the fiercely sarcastic “Oh, glorious pattern of heroic deeds!” She’s just as impressive in remorse and madness in Act 3 where her “Where shall I fly?” is fierce and she alone remains distanced from the divinely ordained reconciliation at the end. It’s not just the Joyce show though. There’s gorgeous, tender singing from both Ingela Bohlin as Iole (her “My breast with tender pity swells” is just lovely) and Toby Spence as Hyllus. Interestingly, the part of Lichas; herald and voice of reason, is here given to the Swedish mezzo Malena Ernman though it’s not really presented as a trouser role. The gender of this character, rightly, is presented as of no importance. William Shimmell rounds out the cast with a solid performance in the rather thankless title role. I hardly need to comment on Wiulliam Christie, his orchestra and chorus. They are the Barcelona of the baroque and this is another 5-0 performance.
Bondy’s production seems to aim for universality. Everyone wears fairly amorphous modern dress; shirts and pants, fatigues etc. In the firsat two acts it’s fairly colourful but black predominates in Act 3. A broken statue dominates the stage in Act 1 and, at least on the video, Act 3 opens with a long text on the piece accompanying the sinfonia,by Camille Laurens. It’s addressed to “us” and can perhaps be summarized as:
- There are parallels between Handel and Hercules
- Dejanira and Hercules are pretty much equivalent
- We are all Hercules
Fair enough. We all, in a way, experience love and jealousy and misunderstand and are misunderstood. Writ large, here is our universal experience. Maybe that’s not overly ambitious as a production concept but it works here and produces something of real depth and power. It’s probably more effective in so doing than Peter Sellars’ much more explicit approach to similar themes.
Video direction is by Vincent Bataillon and is rather, for my taste, close up oriented. I think that choice can be justified here as the production is very much about individual reactions and individual emotions and close in camera work helps emphasize that. Still, it rather feels like a film rather than a video of a stage performance. Picture and sound quality are perfectly adequate. there are no extras but the booklet, besides a track listing, contains an interesting interview with Bondy. Subtitle options are French, English, German and Spanish.
Fn1: I have a bit of a problem with tge whole sexual jealousy element of the plot. Apart from Hercules being pretty much over the top in pretty much every way he made part of his reputation by raping 50 virgins in one night. He’s also the son of that paragon of marital fidelity Jove. Are we really expected to believe that Dejanira expected him to be sexually continent?