David Daniels as Lichas (in background), Richard Croft as Hyllus, Lucy Crowe as Iole and Kaleb Alexander as Soldier in Hercules. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas
The Canadian Opera Company is concluding its 2013-2014season with three operas that are somewhat off the beaten track and that it has not produced before: Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, Massenet’s Don Quichotte and Handel’s Hercules. The spring season opened with the latter opera directed by Peter Sellars.
Handel called Hercules a “musical drama” and most writers seem to agree that it is neither an opera nor a secular oratorio. As a musical drama it is largely static, contains numerous arias and some choral pieces but relatively little interaction between the characters. It looks back to Sophocles’s Women of Trachis and Ovid’s Metamorphoses for its plot about the downfall of Hercules.
Peter Sellars has brought the story to the twentieth century and turned it into a tale about soldiers, war, healing and restoration. Hercules returns to his wife Dejanira with Princess Iole, a war trophy from a city that he just destroyed. Dejanira becomes jealous of the pretty young woman and sets out to regain her husband’s love. Unknowingly, she uses a magic potion that is in fact deadly and she kills her husband.
Dejanira is wracked with guilt but she is reassured when she learns from a Priest that Hercules’s soul has ascended to Mount Olympus to dwell with the gods. Her son Hyllus marries Iole and thus the drama has a happy ending. The role of the Priest is eliminated by Sellars.
Sellars’ idea about an American soldier returning from war and finding a process of healing and reconciliation is imaginative but hardly supported by the libretto. Sellars dresses Hercules in fatigues and at the end has him wheeled in a coffin draped in an American flag. He calls the wedding of Hyllus and Iole in a programme note “the birth of a wiser America and a different Middle East.” None of that is supported by the libretto of course, and it is an imaginative leap that unfortunately does not work.
American bass-baritone Eric Owens sings the role of Hercules. He does not appear until fifty minutes after the curtain goes up and he gets relatively few arias. Owens has a deep, resonant and powerful voice, a credible stage presence and does superb work in a significant number of roles. Listening to him in Hercules, I felt that he was in the wrong opera. His voice is great in Wagnerian or Verdian operas but it seemed to lack the suppleness to do justice to Handel.
Countertenor David Daniels was superb as Lichas, the faithful servant. His marvellous delivery was vocally and emotionally splendid.
Lucy Crowe was perhaps the best performer of the night as the hapless Iole. The high kudos goes because of her tonal beauty and affecting performance. Mezzo-Soprano Alice Coote as Dejanira proved that she has a mellow and beautiful voice with some delicious low notes. Unfortunately she ran into some shrillness in her top register.
Tenor Richard Croft as Hyllus on crutches held his own in a very fine performance.
The COC Chorus walked on and off the stage because there was something for them to sing. The addition of some hand gestures was an unnecessary extra to their fine performance.
The set consisted of a rectangle with some rocks in it. There were pieces of columns on three sides of the rectangle. Different colours were used to light the rocks and judicious lighting was used for the back of the stage. The columns give the impression of a Greek mythical location and American soldiers seem out of place.
It is no accident that the COC has never performed Hercules before. Individual arias and choral pieces sounded beautiful and the drama sounds fine on CD. But as a stage work it has limitations. Sellars tried to overcome and even surpass those limitations by forcing an imaginative vision on the drama. Let’s just say that it was not entirely successful.
Hercules by George Frideric Handel (music), Reverend Thomas Broughton (libretto) opened on April 5 and will be performed a total of seven times until April 30, 2014 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.coc.ca.