17 Mar 2006

Hercules at the Barbican — Five Reviews

Hercules (HWV 60) was first performed on 5 January 1745 at King's Theatre, Haymarket, London. Categorized as a drama, it traditionally has been performed in the oratorio style (i.e., a concert performance). Following its performance as an opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, this production by William Christie now appears at the Barbican in London. "This extraordinary opera recounts the tragic tale of a hero literally poisoned by the jealousy of his misguided wife. In this modern-dress production, punctuated by Greek references, the action takes place on a sand-covered, amphitheatre-style arena where the chorus is used as Handel originally intended, to embody the people of Trachis and comment on the action." Here are five reviews.

Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 16 March 2006]

Now we know why Hercules is so little performed. A hybrid of opera and oratorio, Greek tragedy and psychological study, it occupies a dramatic no-man’s-land, with nothing to leaven Handel’s formulaic music save a stupendous mad scene. That is not much to show for four hours in the theatre, and this production, originating at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2004, does little to persuade us otherwise.

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Tim Ashley [Guardian, 17 March 2006]

Handel's Hercules is something of a conundrum. First performed in 1745, it's technically a secular oratorio and was never intended for the stage, yet it has a dramatic coherence far superior to many works written for the theatre. Dealing with the death and apotheosis of the eponymous strong man, it derives from plays by Sophocles and Seneca, and, unusually for Handel, has something of the relentless force and rhetorical flavour of classical tragedy.

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Hilary Finch [Times Online, 17 March 2006]

Sand, sculpture and orange pressée. As the blue silk curtain rises, you could almost imagine yourself in Aix-en-Provence, where Luc Bondy’s production of Handel’s Hercules began. And the promise of a William Christie/Les Arts Florissants show, fully staged, has made this the hottest of hot tickets.

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Ringing clarity in a cold bunker

[Rupert Christiansen, Daily Telegraph, 17 March 2006]

It is peculiarly difficult for modern productions to hit the right note when tackling a work such as Handel's Hercules: neither purely serious nor comic, neither opera nor oratorio, it is a slyly sophisticated and ironic artefact, mixing farcical elements with high Protestant earnestness and the classical tragedy of noble personages trapped in intense emotional dilemmas.

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Michael Church [Independent, 17 March 2006]

We think we know Handel these days, but he's still full of surprises: the rarely performed Hercules sheds unexpected light on his mercurial genius. This "musical drama" didn't get much of an audience when it was premiered in 1744, but the cognoscenti recognised its quality: it offered a startling new take on the death of a legendary hero, and it reflected morbid psychology through music in a way far ahead of its time.

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