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Alice Coote as Dejanira and David Daniels as Lichas [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Chicago Lyric Opera]
19 Apr 2011

Handel’s Hercules when the Music is Paramount

In Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Handel’s Hercules there is an undeniable interpretive strategy which prompts the viewer to consider recurring elements of human emotion, e.g. jealousy, rage, pity, among others.

Dejanira: Alice Coote; Hercules: Eric Owens; Lichas: David Daniels; Iole: Lucy Crowe; Hyllus: Richard Croft. Conductor: Harry Bicket. Director: Peter Sellars. Set Designer: George Tsypin. Costume Designer: Dunya Ramicova. Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalls. Chorus Master: Donald Nally.

Above: Alice Coote as Dejanira and David Daniels as Lichas [Photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Chicago Lyric Opera]


Further, the setting, costumes, and gestures suggest, alternately, the concept of the hero returning from military successes and the accompanying domestic reconciliations which must also be confronted. The specific associations with modern political and military conflicts, under Peter Sellars’ direction, are, to be sure, communicated in such a way that more elemental affects predominate. Hence although some costuming is admittedly tied to recent struggles in Iraq, the resultant application speaks for universal emotions beyond any single war. This dramatic success may be ascribed in part, to the musical direction but at the same time to the extraordinary collection of vocal talent assembled for this production.

In his attempt to shape “the piece with a view to bringing Händel’s oratorio closer to Sophocles original play,” Mr. Sellars divides the work into two parts rather than three acts. The sets remain generally simple, several benches affording the performers opportunity to sit or lie while broken columns suggest a neglected domestic court. In the overture to the first part Harry Bicket led with agile tempos and managed the integration of individual orchestral sections into a seamless whole. As the first participants to appear in the initial part David Daniels as the herald Lichas and Alice Coote as Dejanira, the wife of Hercules, inhabit their roles with conviction and dignity. Dejanira enters as the colors on the backdrop of the stage change to indicate day’s arrival. She seems weary and hugs herself as if to ward off the cold, or solitude. In his comment on observing the state of Dejanira Mr. Daniels performs the first of Lichas’s solo pieces with skilled and tasteful decoration. His emphasis on “relentless” in the aria “No longer, Fate” communicates the mood of the court as mirrored in Dejanira’s gestures. Further, in his plea to Jove, Daniels uses discreet trills alternately on “the hero’s life” and “weeping wife” as a means to join or contrast the two figures musically who are kept physically apart by war. In her own self-distracted and pessimistic musing in the aria “The world, when day’s career is run,” Coote gives appropriately expressive color to low notes on “darkness” and “thickest gloom.” She sings her final lines here, in echo of the sentiment of Lichas, with decorative and emphatic trills on “absence” as key to her emotional anguish.

In the following several scenes the fate of Hercules is presented, alternately, in negative and in optimistic lights, as the remaining characters of the piece are introduced. At first, Hyllus, son of Hercules and Dejanira, vows to search for his father after he consulted an oracle that predicted death for the hero. In order to assuage his mother’s mood at this news, Hyllus swears his conviction in the recitative and heroic aria, “Despair not … Where congealed the northern streams.” In the role of Hyllus Richard Croft gave a supremely assured performance of the loyal son and future leader. His vocal embellishments, presented in the most natural manner, describe “With advent’rous steps” the path he will tread until discovering the fate of his father. As accompanied by the chorus’s thoughtfully choreographed “O filial piety,” Hyllus is on the point of leaving when Lichas interrupts with news of his master’s success. Hercules has defeated the king of Oechalia and returns with the princess as his captive. In Dejanira’s reaction, “Begone, my fears,” Ms. Coote applies excited touches of decoration on “the morning ray” and concludes with a dramatic top note at the phrase “swell my soul” to signal her recovery.

Hercules_Chicago_02.gif(Left to right) Alice Coote, Eric Owens, Lucy Crowe, Marckarthur Johnson and Richard Croft

In the following scene the characters Hercules and Iole, the captive princess, enter and establish their dramatic and vocal personalities. The two initial arias performed by Lucy Crowe as Iole were exemplars of character portrayal and Handelian decoration. While Hyllus looked on with growing interest Ms. Crowe performed “Daughter of Gods” with a seamless line and flute-like, rapid high notes on “a thousand graces.” Her saddened memories in “My father! Ah! Methinks I see” were equally expressive with noted ornaments touchingly applied on “Dying he bites the crimson ground.” The role of Hercules, sung by Eric Owens, remains at this narrative juncture implicitly understated. Mr. Owens communicates the introspection and detachment of the hero returned in “The god of battle quits the bloody field,” while also tracing a lyrically embellished line for the bass-baritone. From this point until the close of the first part the growing rift between Hercules and Dejanira is detailed in the latter’s reaction to Iole’s presence. As if to highlight her innocence, the aria “How blest the maid” is performed by Ms. Crowe with near pastoral effect as she uses delicate high notes with crystalline effect. By contrast, Dejanira’s anger and jealousy are expressed by Ms. Coote’s negative emphases in “Love dips his arrows … and sends them pointed to the heart.” The emotional violence implied, as well as her own reactions, is captured by Coote’s contrastive embellishments opposing her role to that of Iole. As the chorus appropriately concludes the first part of the drama, the participants remind with hushed tones that “Jealousy” is “Tyrant of the human heart.”

Just as Hercules and Dejanira stand in this production at the close of Part I at opposite sides of the stage, in order to signify their continued emotional distance, Hyllus and Iole appear together at the start of Part II. In answer to Iole’s protests that love between them cannot prosper, since Hercules slew her father, Mr. Croft expresses the growing passion of Hyllus with eloquent lyricism. His downward decorations on the first line of the aria “From celestial sets descending” are matched by embellishments in the thematic line “To taste the sweeter heav’n of love.” The following scenes signal a further separation between Hercules and Dejanira, as Coote mocks him with growing intensity in the aria “Resign thy club and lion’s spoils.” As Hercules departs for a ceremony of honors Dejanira recalls a method in her possession to restore a flagging love. The dying centaur Nessus had convinced her that his blood would revivify love gone astray. Not realizing that it is poisonous, she smears it onto a garment which she entrusts to the herald Lichas to bring as a gift to Hercules. The horrified report of Lichas ensues, in which the suffering and death of Hercules resulting from the poisoned garment is related. The hero is depicted lying on a stone slab from which Mr. Owens sings the aria “I rage” with rapid and expressive runs in the vocal line. The following two scenes bring to a dramatic and lyrical climax the sentiments defining both lead female characters. Dejanira is beset by guilt which Coote declaims with moving fervor in “Where shall I fly?” Her embellishments on the “skies” as witness to her guilt conclude with memorable dramatic high notes on “the pursuing furies of the mind.” Iole’s aria in response, “My breast with tender pity swells,” reiterates the tone of reconciliation which characterized her role in this foreign household from the start. Ms. Crowe’s simple yet decorative trills on “breast” and “pity” served as a means to deflect the harsh feelings of enmity and guilt which had preceded the demise of the hero. The final duet of love “O prince … O princess,” sung by Iole and Hyllus, brings now full circle the constellation of emotions as survivors and chorus pass the bier of honor with Hercules’s remains.

Salvatore Calomino

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