War and human ruin in an opera for the ages

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(c) Dan Rest

Marckarthur Johnson, left, portrays a silent guard overseeing Lucy Crowe as the captured princess Iole, with Richard Coft as Hercules' son Hyllus at the Lyric Opera. 

Review: “Hercules,” by G.F. Handel
Lyric Opera of Chicago

If the essence of a classic artwork is timelessness, the Lyric Opera makes the case for Handel’s “Hercules” by ripping it from costumed antiquity and giving it modern context and fresh urgency.

The opera’s luxurious but stylistically challenging music, reflecting the agony of souls bruised by the devastation of war, is imbued with brilliance and depth by a cast of singers who indeed transcend the rigors of Baroque convention to create complex, vulnerable characters we care about. This “Hercules” is at once a great night of singing and a memorable experience in theater.

The source of Handel’s opera, first produced in 1745, was Sophocles’ spin on the myth of Hercules, the insuperable warrior who comes home from his latest conquests to a wife desperate with worry. But when he finally shows up, the hero arrives freighted with baggage – the beautiful daughter of the foreign leader he has dispatched and a load of psychological turmoil.

Thus “Hercules” unfolds not as a playing out of events (little actually happens over its three-hour course) but as a subtle progression of circumstance, and as much through self-examination as through dialogue.

In this new production, director Peter Sellars has penetrated to the opera’s human heart by relocating the story from some time in the distant past to the war-fractured world of today. The scene is America, with returning combat troops clad in modern gear and an elaborate barbecue grill pushed into view for a welcome-home party.

Set designer George Tsypin’s landscape of broken antique columns, beneath a sky that turns from starlit to something more hellish, serves as a plausible metaphor for mankind’s everlasting determination to reduce his world to rubble in the name of heroism.

Yet so fully are the conflict and tragedy of “Hercules” contained in Handel’s music that a vocal performance as thoroughly splendid as this one might be just as effective with minimal staging, the barest hints of place and time.

The wealth of Handel’s music, prodigiously challenging in its coloratura flourishes, is well distributed among four characters: Hercules’ wife Dejanira (mezzo-soprano Alice Coote), his son Hyllus (tenor Richard Croft), the herald Lichas (countertenor David Daniels) and the trophy princess Iole (soprano Lucy Crowe). The opera is about Hercules only in light of the damage his actions wreak upon the others, and thus the hero (bass Eric Owens) is the least on stage and the least involved musically.

Coote’s painfully enduring, pill-popping Dejanira brings to mind the bereft Countess in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and indeed her heart-breaking reflection on the happier days of her marriage to Hercules is a blueprint for the Countess’ similarly wistful aria written some 40 years later. Typical of Coote’s expressive, agile singing is her guilt-ridden lament over Hercules’ death, “Where shall I fly.” The grievous answer is that she cannot escape from herself.

Sellars often has his characters singing in various recumbent poses, but as the captive Iole, Crowe deals with a greater challenge: She must deliver her first aria with a bag over her head. When finally given free voice, Crowe puts on one stunning vocal display after another. Her aria imploring Dejanira not to succumb to jealousy brought the performance to a prolonged stop.

Daniels’ sweetly eloquent singing as Hercules’ herald, the frequent bearer of bad news between the hero and his wife, peaked in a benumbed reaction to the image of his god-like master slain most hideously. Croft’s ringing performance as Hercules’ son, masculine and yet softened by the gentleness of youth, rounded out a vocal quartet that left nothing to be wished for. As Hercules, Owens’ imposing figure and moody restlessness, as a hard-edged soldier suddenly pressed into a domestic mold, added as much truth to this production as the singer’s formidable basso.  

Conductor Harry Bicket elicited crisp, stylish playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and the chorus managed to sing with energy and precision even while executing choreographed hand and head gestures that suggested a continuum back through Handel to the early Greek stage. It is an implicit reminder that the tragedy of Hercules is endlessly repeated and ever new.

Through March 21. www.lyricopera.org. (312) 332-2244.   

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.