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Handel: Hercules
16 Oct 2006

HANDEL: Hercules

From the 2004 Aix en Provence Festival comes this Luc Bondy staging of Handel's oratorio Hercules, an achingly serious and sober portrayal of Olympian rage and jealousy.

G. F. Handel: Hercules

William Shimell, Joyce DiDonato, Toby Spence, Ingela Bohlin, Malena Ernman, Simon Kirkbride, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (dir.). Mise en scène Luc Bondy.

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Notwithstanding an occasional lovely aria for the young lovers Hylius and Iole (the latter of which inadvertently inspires Hercules' wife to marital homicide), the three hours of agonized vocalizing in Handel's score might benefit from restraint when depicted on stage. Bondy from the start reveals his intention to dive, with leaden ponderousness, into the pool of despond. At least this admirably performed DVD allows the viewer to come up for air from time to time, via the life preserver of the remote control.

Joyce DiDontao's distraught Dejanira begins the opera in despair of ever seeing her intrepid husband again. Clad in black (and by opera's end, everyone will be, except for the blood-smeared white shroud for Hercules), DiDonato twists and writhes on the floor - when she doesn't twist and writhe while pacing or propping her enervated frame against a wall. Khaki-clad Lichas (Malena Ernman) tries to console Dejanira, but the hero's joyous homecoming soon deteriorates into the shock of Hercules's mid-life crisis, a passion for the abducted Iole, for whom Hercules has slaughtered an entire town. The chorus, in contemporary street clothes, observes all this in various stages of dismay. The tragic conclusion, including an amazing mad scene for Dejanira dispatched with bravura by DiDonato, takes its own sweet time in arriving. A final joyful chorus for the marriage of Hylius and Iole finds Bondy unable to relax his steely resolve, as the dark clouds are not banished at all by this unmotivated jubilation.

The oppressive set offers not much more than a concrete box and a sand floor, along with the ubiquitous fallen, broken statuary. While undeniably handsome in its spartan fashion, the eye soon longs for a spot of color. Bondy does keep the stage picture alive with movement, and his committed cast never flags in its dedication to the director's vision.

The stand-out performance comes, as it should, from DiDonato as Dejanira, much more the true lead role of the piece (and appropriately, she gets the final bow.) As a showcase for this singer's exquisite tone and agility, the production earns ample gratitude. William Shimell never has an opportunity to earn much sympathy as the titular hero, and so his occasionally brusque, grainy delivery can't be faulted. Besides being exquisite herself, Ingela Bohlin sings a lovely Iole, and Toby Spence's Hyllus gives more evidence of this young tenor's promise, with his light instrument easily grasping Handel's meandering melodic lines.

The irreproachable William Christie and his orchestra and chorus of Les Arts Florrisants get the sharp and detailed recording their performance deserves. The singers all appear to have been miked for the cameras, as there is no aural dimension to their delivery.

For lovers of the somber and lachrymose, this DVD will be a gray-toned treat. For all others wishing to spend some pleasurable hours with the music of Handel in a theatrical setting, the recent Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare makes an excellent alternative.

Chris Mullins

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