As with Vivaldi’s’ L’oracolo in Messenia, one might wonder when a Handel opera is just that. Hercules, first performed in January 1745, is along with Semele one of those strange experiments of Handel to satisfy his London audience, then jaded with Italian opera, and he called Hercules a music drama rather than opera or oratorio. As a music drama the piece is remarkably successful, with vivid portrayals of the characters’ emotional states, attractive arias and rollicking choruses.
Sadly, this wasn’t the opinion of the first audience back in 1745. With an original run of just two performances and a meagre handful of revivals in 1749 and 1752, this does not count as one of Handel’s most successful works but thankfully with the benefit of hindsight, we are in a position to re-evaluate the score and enjoy the results. The original cast starred regular Handel singers, with John Beard taking the role of Hyllus and Susanna Cibber planned for Lichas. Cibber was not well enough to perform and her music was omitted or redistributed amongst other characters. The role was largely eliminated in revivals, Cibber’s popularity and involvement in the performance made Handel, the sensible business man, invest time in writing music for her that is fairly redundant for the drama.
The plot is drawn from Sophocles and Ovid, telling of the last fateful day of Hercules, presumed dead in battle but swaggering back from war with the beautiful Iole as prisoner. Dejanira, his wife, gets a visit from the green-eyed monster and, in order to regain his devotion, resorts to sending her husband a robe saturated with the blood of Hercules’ vanquished enemy, the centaur Nessus. Sadly this goes pear-shaped as the robe is poisoned (reminiscent of Medea’s revenge on Glauce). Hercules is burnt to death but is taken into heaven by his father Zeus.
Back at the Barbican for a bit of Baroque, The English Concert under Harry Bicket played stylishly, with crisp string playing in the overture and a frothy lightness in the fugal second section. Their direction was thoughtful, considered and capable of finely underpinning any drama expressed in the text, lending a suitably pompous feel to the march introducing the victorious son of Zeus. They played with some fiery licks in Hyllus’ aria ‘Where congealed the northern streams’ and lacerating sharpness in Iole’s accompagnato as she contemplated her father’s slaughter. If they were capable of expressing the dramatic and violent, they were equally at home in the fun and flummery as in the chorus ‘Wanton god of amorous flames’, playing with a will o’ the wisp delicacy and an effective slow crescendo swelling in time with the text being sung, whilst ‘Resign thy club and lion’s spoils’ had cheeky little glissandi from the strings on ‘whining son’.
The many choruses in the piece, as with Handel’s oratorios, were often a high point. Acting as moral commentator on proceedings, they sang homogenously to oft’ great effect. From ‘Filial piety’ with its Gluckian stateliness to the dark and funereal ‘Jealousy, infernal pest’ almost sinking to the disturbing depths of darkness portrayed in the trio des parques in Hippolyte et Aricie, the chorus were a pleasure to hear. The pure ebullient joy expressed in ‘Crown with festal pomp the day’ led one to wish for an immediate reprise. That said, it took me two hours to find the overture from a Suite in D in Telemann’s Tafelmusik that Handel pilfered the catchy droning dance tune to accompany the words ‘Bid the maids the youths provoke’. The things I do for you, dear reader.
If the orchestra and chorus were consistently fine, the soloists were on a decidedly middle ground, though with individual moments of excellence. Currently seeming to be appearing in any available alto role, Rupert Enticknap tackled Cibber’s role of Lychas and did so more convincingly that he did L’oracolo which really pushed him to his limits. He seems much more of a Handelian, more comfortable in this repertoire than in Italian. As it was, only three of Cibber’s six arias were sung by Enticknap. If in ‘No longer, Fate, relentless frown’ he sounded like a pallid Michael Chance, he sang ‘As stars that rise and fall’ more securely. Sadly, this was let down by some bizarre pantomime acting during the tortured sinfonia preceding Hercules’ final entry. It was all rather like watching the meaningful glances being passed between characters in Wolf Hall, all verging on the self-indulgent.
Self-indulgent is certainly what comes to mind in regards to Alice Coote’s Dejanira, the easily provoked jealous wife. Coming on to the stage like an extra from a Zefferelli production of Norma, her acting can only be described as bonkers from the proximity to which I witnessed it, huffing and puffing like a spoilt teenager and overly-affected in the recitative preceding ‘Begone, my fears, fly hence away’. ‘The world, when day’s career is run’ contained some odd vocalisations, with uncomfortable sounding changes of register and much face pulling. In recitatives, she descended to breathy enunciation and a penchant for over emphasising hard syllable closes to sentences, sounds such as ICK, IST etc. being thrown out like bullets and heavily accented. Her characterisation became ever more eccentric throughout the evening, nowhere more so that in the da capo of ‘Resign thy club and lion’s spoils’. The horror at imagining the furies approach portrayed in ‘See, see they come’ started well but became too affected, one wanted to say ‘calm down dear, it’s just a concert performance’. Happily there were moments when Coote displayed her talents more positively with some good high notes and a decent, if quiet, trill in ‘There in gentle myrtle shades reclined’.
The arrival of Hyllas was a tad odd, since this ‘son’ was much older than both ‘mother’ and ‘father’. If visually it looked peculiar, vocally James Gilchrist brought experience and an elegant sound to much of his singing. Much attention was paid to word setting with proud ‘treads’ and a steady tone on ‘congealed’ in ‘Where congealed the northern streams’. The top of his range sounded a little hoarse in ‘From celestial seats descending’ but overall a lovely tone was being produced. Which princess wouldn’t warm to these honeyed tones as he woos his traumatised bride to be?
Matthew Rose was the comically jovial Hercules, more genial rugby player than musclebound mass-murderer and killer of endangered species (when was the last time you saw a Hydra or flesh-eating horse?) He capably sang ‘The god of battle, quits the bloody field’ representing Hercules as a young lion and seemed to enjoy the perky ‘Alcides’ name in latest story’, with its upstart oboe and bassoon, sharing material from Apollo’s aria ‘Sprezzo l’arco e getta l’armi’ in Apollo e Dafne. He offered a fine musical portrayal in his final accompagnato, when Hercules at last becomes a tragic figure, easily conveying the pain and suffering of the dying hero.
I have consciously saved the best ‘til last. Elizabeth Watts’ occasionally heart-breaking rendition of Iole, the captive princess, mourning her murdered father and appalled at the prospect at marrying the murderer’s son. Her opening recitative was expressive and showed the anguish of the character. She had a sweet tone in ‘How blest the maid ordained to dwell’, with clear, incisive notes.In ‘Ah think what ills the jealous prove’ she displayed a good control of the coloratura demands even if the final low note was a little weak. Her final aria, ‘My breast with tender pity swells’ displayed a calming rationality. If her shoulder heaving and sobbing at the end of the aria were put on, they felt genuine and more moving that anything Coote had pulled together in her much more substantial role.
Hercules may not get a staging any time soon, what with the fashion for putting on Handel’s concert works as operas but with its excellent choruses, finely depicted portrayal of Iole’s emotions and the potential in Dejanira’s impressively written mad scene, more concert performances would be most welcome.