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Hercules

19 November 2017

The monster consumes itself

Hercules

by George Frideric Handel, libretto by Thomas Broughton

Richmond Opera at Normansfield Theatre until 19th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Hercules, legendary strongman hero, tackled fearsome lions, hydras, bulls, boars, and monstrous dogs: twelve gruesome creatures, and others beside, hand-to-hand, alone. He succumbed to none, vanquished all these monsters … but then came the green eyed monster!

Sophocles, in one of his best tragedies, Τραχίνιαι (Women of Trachis), tells how Hercules’ death was brought about by the jealousy of his wife, Dejanira. Hercules is returning from Oechalia, where he has been victorious in a war against King Eurytus and his sons, whom he has killed. He is returning home to Trachis in Thessaly, with his army, much booty and many prisoners, including the beautiful Princess Iole, Eurytus’ daughter. Dejanira has been waiting many years for news of Hercules, but now she is not too happy about his principal captive, an aristocratic woman who is young and highly desirable. Seeds of marital discord soon germinate in Dejanira’s heart, with disastrous consequences.

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Handel’s Hercules, which premiered in January 1745, had a bumpy ride in its early days. The part of Lichas, the herald, originally a minor tenor role, was rewritten for actress Susannah Cibber, one London’s most popular stage personalities of the time. Unfortunately, she was taken ill and the part was read in. The piece flopped and Handel offered his Subscribers (the production’s “angels”) their money back, but they stuck with him and the houses picked up later in the season. Nevertheless, Handel’s confidence in the work was shaken, and he continued to write and rewrite that piece for years.

Hence, Hercules has always had the feel of a work in progress, and Richmond Opera in its current production of Hercules continues this notion by presenting an abridged version and splitting some of the original roles between other characters, albeit characters with a mythological pedigree. Moreover, director Lucy Green has moved the action to Britain, and in the mid-fifteenth century, although the reason for this is not obvious. However, it does give a wonderful opportunity for scene designer Lynn Keay to blend her set beautifully with the Victorian medievalism of the Normansfield Theatre and the pre-Raphaelite feel of its paintings. It furthermore gives a complementary opportunity for costume designer Kate Cleeland to regal us some luxurious medieval garments, including featuring of the hennin, the tall steeple hat favoured by ladies at the start of the Wars of the Roses, the archetypical fairy princess hat.

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The fairy princess of this story is Iole, who is finely acted by soprano Philippa Dodd, whose vocal precision lightly colours the baroque figuring. From the initial lament for her lost freedom, and for her slaughtered family, to being able to feel sympathy and love for her captors, Iole has a huge emotional journey to make. At first she contrasts, “Daughter of gods, bright liberty! … thou, alas, hast winged thy flight … removed for ever from my sight” with “Captivity, like the destroyer death, throws all distinctions down”. Whereas, later she recognises the effect of jealousy in her nemesis Dejanira, “Ah, think what ills the jealous prove. Adieu to peace, adieu to love”. In due course, she can feel deep sympathy with Dejanira, “My breast with tender pity swells at sight of human woe …”. Philippa Dodd achieves this task consummately.

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Emilie Taride brings great mezzo fire to the role of Dejanira, giving her passions full rein. When jealousy takes hold, she knows how to spit the venom, and has a good turn of sarcasm for her hero husband, “Oh, I grieve to see the victor to the vanquished yield …. Your fame eclips’d, and all your laurels blasted!”. It may be true to the mezzo cliché of bitches, witches and britches but Handel is not very kind to poor Dejanira. Perhaps Taride could have turned down the heat, although not for the deranged full-blast arias such as “Where shall I fly”. Sophocles, in contrast to Handel, shows Dejanira as the victim of her own jealousy, not its mistress.

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What is the consequence of Dejanira’s jealousy? While Hercules is away overseeing preparations for the rites to celebrate his victory, Dejanira remembers she has stored a “garment, dipped in Nessus’ blood”, which will “revive the expiring flame of love” in Hercules. She sends Lichas to the temple with it for Hercules to wear at the ceremony. Now, Nessus was a centaur, who had offered to ferry Dejanira across the River Evenus. In mid-crossing, Nessus attempted to rape her and Hercules shot him dead with an arrow steeped in the blood of the Hydra. The dying centaur claimed to Dejanira that a garment soaked in his blood could be used as an aphrodisiac specific to Hercules, and that he would never look at another woman again.

However, when Hercules dons the garment, the Hydra’s blood bursts into flames, burning the skin from his body, whilst irretrievably sticking the deadly garment to him. Choreographer Harita Stavrou has created an atmospheric ballet sequence for this gruesome immolation of Hercules with five young dancers from the Richmond Academy of Dance, a ring of silk flames surrounding Hercules as he dies. Hercules, played with rich bass resonance by Tony Moss, calls out in agony “I burn, I burn. Tormenting fire consumes me. Oh, I die. Some ease, ye pitying powers!”. But no help comes, although he calls, “Neptune, kindly pour Ocean’s collected flood into my breast and cool my boiling blood!”.

 

 

Handel referred to his Hercules as a Musical Drama, and dramatic it certainly is, to distinguish it in essence from his non-staged oratorios. It is much more in the style of the Italian operas of his time. Not only is da capo aria form prominent, but the chorus plays an important role. Here the link with the source material from Sophocles is evident, as the chorus has the same function of the chorus in Greek tragedy, commenting on the action as well as being part of the narrative itself.

Richmond Opera’s chorus greatly fleshes out the piece. It’s collective outburst “Jealousy! Infernal pest, tyrant of the human breast! How from slightest causes bred dost thou lift thy hated head!” forms a powerful climax to the first half of the opera, a massed fugato highlight. Its lament following the death of Hercules is striking: “Tyrants now no more shall dread on necks of vanquished slaves to tread … Fear of punishment is o’er. The world’s avenger is no more!”

Notwithstanding the strong presence of the chorus, the stage often feels congested and over-used. There are often occasions when groups of actors are there for no particular reason and sometimes pull the focus. Equally the temptation to over-use the renowned Normansfield scenery and fly in its magnificent painted backdrops overwhelms. (Incidentally the use of free-standing scenery blocks to supplement the Victorian flats is a very clever idea.)
We know that opera thrives on spectacle but sometimes less can be more.

The plot of Hercules is not all negative however. There is the underlying element of the transmutation of Iole’s despair, and her hated of her captors, into a growing love for Hyllus, Hercules’ son. Tenor Andrew Evans delivers an imposing vocal interpretation of the part, secure through the full range of his register, but could allow himself to be more impassioned in his physical interpretation of the role, particularly as Hyllus woos the lovely Iole, when, “Gods have left their heaven above to taste the sweeter heaven of love”.

Some of the Hyllus’ words are given in this production to Iolaus, in mythology Hyllus’ cousin. Luke Reader gives the role sharpened vitality, with vocal accuracy and a pleasing tone, particularly at the lower end of the register. Lichas, the herald, the part Handel originally intended for contralto Susannah Cibber, was later transposed for counter-tenor and Mark Fletcher ably demonstrates his remarkable vocal abilities in this role.

Handel shows his mastery of inventive contrapuntal and temporal variation. Dramatically, the music follows the moods of the plot and underlines the characterisation of the protagonists. Conductor Lindsay Bramley, Richmond Opera’s Music Director, runs expertly with all these nuances, pacing at the appropriate tempo, and pushing the anxious energy of the music. She gets the most from her fifteen piece orchestra under the experienced leadership of Jocelyn Slocombe. Whist mainly modern instruments, it has an authentic baroque feel, helped not only by Michael Keen’s harpsichord, but by the full expression of the foregrounding of individual instruments elicited in Handel’s narrative score.

Hercules is a work full of ironies. The ironies of Nessus’ words, of the guilt of the innocent, of love arising from hatred, set the foil for its greatest irony, that Dejanira’s love for her husband bring about his destruction. Keep the green eyed monster in its lair, for if love conquers all, it may commit suicide.

Mark Aspen
November 2017

 

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