Review: Strong Cast for Peter Sellars’ Reconceptualization of Handel’s “Hercules” – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 16, 2011

In Greek mythology, as told us by Ovid and by Sophocles in his play The Women of Trachis, the centaur Nessos raped Hercules’ second wife, Dejanira, and Hercules mortally wounded Nessos in revenge. The dying centaur tricked Dejanira into believing that if she saved his blood, it could be re-used as a kind of love potion.

When the warrior Hercules returned to her, she felt estranged from him, suspecting that Hercules’ capture of Iole, daughter of an adversary, was motivated by Hercules’ desire that Iole be his lover.  To win back Hercules’ love, she rubbed the centaur’s blood in his cloak. But that created a ghastly death for Hercules, resulting in his being burned alive.

George Friderick Handel, with established reputations in both opera and oratorio, was experimenting with new forms that were something in between these two kinds of vocal performance art. In 1744, “Hercules”, based on a recent English translation of Sophocles’ play, was composed and called “a new musical drama”. It was composed to an English language libretto by Thomas Broughton.

Although “Hercules” contains glorious music, as one expects in any Handel vocal work, having the hero for whom the musical drama is named die such a ghastly death, and one unintended by the person immediately responsible, has seemed to argue for bypassing this story line for one that might resonate better with contemporary audiences.

But Handel’s “Hercules” has gained an important champion, the brilliant opera producer Peter Sellars, who can find unexpected relationships between classical works of art and current day issues.

[Below: Production conceptualizer and stage director Peter Sellars; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera.]

The relationship he detected? The fate of Hercules is a convenient metaphor for the plight of the veterans of modern warfare, particularly American servicemen who are called upon to serve their country valiantly, but who find adjustment to civilian society after the experience of warfare to be extraordinarily difficult. Nor does Sellars believe the situation is easy for the spouses and families left behind.

Thus, Sellars conceived a new production of Handel’s “Hercules” for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Sellars Sells his Concept

Sellars has taken a very hands on approach to the philosophy behind his production. He personally assumed the role of the lecturer for the pre-performance talks that Lyric Opera, as so many American companies do, presents in the hour before the curtain is raised.

“Lecturer” is not quite the right term for his impassioned plea for compassion for the American soldiers and their families, regardless of whatever opinion that one might have for the wars in which they have been engaged. (That American servicemen might be called upon to become engaged in new tasks in Northern Africa even as the performance of “Hercules” took place was lost on few in the Chicago audience.)

His talk linked the sentiments of Sophocles and the philanthropy of the composer Handel to the emotional toll that a soldier’s battlefield responsibilities has for that individual, his or her spouse and their families.

The production’s costuming by Dunya Ramicova would link his ideas – placing Hercules and several members of the chorus in desert camouflage uniforms, and the prisoner Iole in an orange prisoner’s jump-suit, her head covered by a black hood. The final scene (not entirely absent of controversy) had the body of Hercules in a coffin draped by an American flag.

The “folks back home” were repsented by American casual dress, and a big stainless steel barbecue, with the chorus divided between men and women soldiers in camo (including at least one pair of men to which “don’t ask, don’t tell” is meant to apply), department store togs, and ancient Greek dresses.

A Vision of Hell

The stage sets had a more classical feel, with broken columns which surround a square in which a number of boulders lie, seemingly chiseled by age into angular shapes. The sets were by the esteemed George Tsypin, the stage director/set designer often associated with operas under the musical supervision of Valery Gergiev and a noted author on the theories of how to use the “whole stage”.

[For the supreme example of his work with Gergiev, I suggest my reviews of the four operas of the Kirov/Mariinsky Theater production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” which can be accessed from the hyperlink for the final episode in that masterwork, at Mariinsky “Goetterdaemmerung” in Orange County – ‘Hehrstes Wunder’ October 11, 2006.]

If, by the standard the Mariinsky “Ring”, Tsypin’s sets for “Hercules” seem modest, one has to wait for the scene in which Hercules puts on the coat (a parka?) that Dejanira has smeared with the centaur’s blood. As soon as this happens the boulders begin to glow, and red lights suggest that we have descended into Hell to empathize with the torment inflicted on Hercules by his burning flesh.

One certainly can associate with Sellars’ sentiments, and one can admire his expansive mind that can link Sophocles’ Trachian women, Handel’s public-spiritedness, and the call to conscience that he has made to us, yet wonder if the metaphor actually works – if this is the myth and this is the baroque musical drama derived from it that he should have chosen for what he has in mind.

Notes on the Vocal Performances

But the purpose of this review is to report on what actually was presented, rather than what might have been done instead. Accepting that the staging and costuming had particular meanings, that were very carefully thought through and explained in detail to the audience, one can accept the premise of each of Sellars’ visual metaphors. There still is the vocal and orchestral performances to describe.

I suspect that opera companies that produce this work are pleased that Handel chose the arguably sellable name of “Hercules”, rather than “The Women of Trachis”. Yet it is Hercules’ family back home – especially his wife Dejanira, but also his son Hyllus – on whom the opera concentrates its focus.

As almost always occurs with Handel’s dramatic vocal works, there were substantial cuts made, but in both the original form of the opera and the abridged performance form, the lead character is indisputably not Hercules (played by American bass-baritone Eric Owens), but his wife Dejanira (played by British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote).

[Below: Alice Coote as Dejanira; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

I had reported recently on Coote’s Charlotte in Massenet’s “Werther” in San Francisco (see “Werther” Re-invented, Yet Again – Francisco Negrin’s New Production at San Francisco Opera, September 15, 2010.) Although I liked her Charlotte, I was especially impressed by her Dejanira, a role, with its several arias (mostly lengthy ones fully exploiting the baroque “ABA” form) which seem to display every facet of her first rate vocal technique. She is able to sustain the pace of the slow legato passages that need superb breath control, but is able also to dash off the coloratura fireworks when needed. Her reputation for interpreting Handel’s vocal writing seems indisputably well-deserved.

The role of Lichas, is in mythology Hercules’ herald, who takes Dejanira’s fatal gift to Hercules and, for his effort, is thrown off a mountainside to his death. In Handel and Sellars it is a less lethal role. The American counter-tenor David Daniels, whom one associates with bigger parts, apparently was pleased to participate in the new Sellars production in Chicago, where he has had performed the title roles in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” and in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”, as well as last Fall’s Oberon in Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (for my review of the latter, see: Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Chicago: Enchanting, Luminous, Hilarious – Lyric Opera, November 17, 2010.)

[Below: Dejanira (Alice Coote, left) seeks information on the state of her husband from his herald – and family friend – Lichas (David Daniels); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

But even if his part is smaller than Coote’s, he does have wonderful Handelian arias to display his arresting vocal powers. Those who see “Hercules” will again understand the extent to which “festival casting” has become a frequent term for the composition of Lyric productions.

Eric Owens was a secure Hercules, and, like his portrait of the King of Scotland at the San Francisco Opera  (See my review at Graham, Swenson, Prina Luminous in S. F.’s Stellar “Ariodante” – June 15, 2008) Owens shows a knack for baroque styles of singing. (See my review of his much larger role at Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera – June 21, 2009). One hopes that the position that he had to sustain during the “hell scene” of the burning of his flesh was not as uncomfortable as it looked from the audience.

One of the most favorable impressions of the evening was made by the Iole of British soprano Lucy Crowe, in her Lyric Opera debut. Her attractive voice and purity of tone was well-matched for such Handelian delights as Iole’s arias “How Blest the Maid” and “My Breast with Tender Pity Swells”.

[Below: Hercules (Eric Owens) has captured Iole (Lucy Crowe) and brought her home with her; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Although each of the principals have much solo work to perform, “Hercules” also has a substnntial role for the chorus, expertly coached by Chorus Master Donald Nally. In contemporary times, choruses are expected to do much more than stand in a corner of the stage and sing in unison. In Sellars’ production, much of their delivery was choreographed, with rather elaborate changes of positions and symbolic hand gestures.

[Below: the Lyric Opera chorus performing a scene from “Hercules”‘; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

There is one other main character, Hercules’ son Hyllus, nicely sung by Richard Croft, who had appeared at Lyric nearly two decades earlier in Rossini’s “Otello”.  It hardly seems appropriate to speak of a happy ending to an opera whose title character has been burned to death without any justification for such a fate, but Hercules’ son does end up with his father’s love interest, to the apparent satisfaction of Dejanira and the other survivors in this war-impacted community.

[Below: Iole (Lucy Crowe, left) consents to become the wife of Hyllus (Richard Croft); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera.]

The conductor of the moderate sized baroque orchestra was Harry Bicket. James F. Ingalls, as lighting designer had much to do in the scene of Hercules’ death.