Handel’s Hercules Back

Revived by the Canadian Opera Company after its first run at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2011, Peter Sellars’s production of Handel’s Hercules spoons out post-9/11 political resonance with a rather large ladle, but then Sellars is hardly one for subtlety. Hercules is certainly not an opera and, riffing on Sophocles and Ovid, it’s not a true oratorio either. In fact, Handel and his librettist, Thomas Broughton, labelled it a “musical drama” when it was first performed (and flopped) at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket in 1745. Sellars’s solution to this generic conundrum is to stage Hercules almost as a Greek tragedy, placing considerable emphasis on the chorus, and to reimagine the eponymous hero as the veteran general of the US’s military campaign in Iraq/Afghanistan, whose triumphant return home is fractured by his own sense of guilt and dislocation.

This contemporary take is largely a failure. Eric Owens doesn’t convince as a modern-day commander struggling to play the husband and father after years of playing at war. Not least, he doesn’t have the physique for the part of a ruthless, war-worn contemporary soldier; he waddles rather than struts in the camouflage combat gear he sports for most of the performance. And the finale, in which a guard of honour wheels on a coffin draped in the stars and stripes, is gratuitous (“In case you missed my BIG idea…”, Sellars seems to say). In his programme notes, the director tells us that Handel has written a musical case study of what we’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder, but this production singularly fails to present Hercules as a genuinely complex or sympathetic character.

Lighting and scenography do little to help. George Tsypin’s set – a periphery of broken classical columns surrounding a central cluster of rocks, which expressionistically glow different colours to suit the mood – calls to mind the saturated, papier mâché alien-world landscapes of 1960s Star Trek.

But occasionally, just occasionally, this heavy-handed interpretation works. The twenty-first-century setting succeeds to the extent that the onstage proliferation of military uniforms focuses our attentions on those not in uniform and makes clear that women – the wives and daughters left behind or taken as the spoils of male victory – are the affective centre of this piece. The drama (based partly on Sophocles’s Women of Trachis) belongs to Dejanira, Hercules’s wife, and to Iole, the Oechalian princess he brings back with him as a prisoner.

And Sellars’s interpretation does bring real poignancy to the music. Again in the programme notes, he points out that the ternary structure of Handel’s da capo arias – the repetition of words and phrases again and again during the opening section and the return to those same lines at the close, following a failed attempt to find refuge in other thoughts – aligns vocal with emotional strain and suggests that “the word itself is in crisis”. This reading may have the ring of an undergraduate essay, but the production bears it out: when Alice Coote’s Dejanira responds to the news that her husband has triumphed on the battlefield with an aria in which she insistently revisits the line “Begone, my fears, fly hence, away”, there is a powerful sense of a woman obsessively and hopelessly striving to sing herself out of anxiety.

The chorus is also highly effective, with the lines in their da capo songs keyed to particular gestural phrases. These simple declamatory movements give the chorus a distinctly classical feel and reinforce the musical structure of repetition and modulation. At some moments this synchronized replaying of gestures lends tragic inevitability to their commentary (“Jealousy! Infernal pest, | Tyrant of the human breast”), while at others it posits the chorus as a mediator desperate to ease the domestic tensions that threaten to spill into civil unrest (“Love and Hymen, hand in hand, | Come, restore the nuptial band”).

With the exception of Owens, who seems always to be fighting a losing battle with the rapid-fire twists and turns of Handel’s music, the vocal performances are strong. As Dejanira and her herald Lichas respectively, the mezzo-soprano Coote and the countertenor David Daniels give assured performances that grow in brittle intensity as the drama progresses. But, without question, the star of the show is Lucy Crowe in the role of Iole. Brought on cuffed and in a Guantanamo-Bay-style orange boiler suit, she sings most of her first aria under a black hood that in no way inhibits her stunning soprano delivery. Indeed, the juxtaposition of visual and acoustic elements in this scene – as the associations of the prison outfit grate against the purity of Crowe’s voice – makes for the most unsettlingly poignant moment of the production.

Sellars’s Handel is very much an Enlightenment figure: experimental, progressive, and committed to the project of democracy and tolerance. Hercules, Sellars assures us, is a parable of the need for mutual sympathy, a vision of a possible new world of forgiveness and understanding: “The song of liberty welcomes all strangers: the wedding of Iole and Hyllus [Hercules’s son] suggests the birth of a wiser America and a different Middle East,” he writes of the drama’s close. Sellars has all too easily swallowed the Enlightenment’s best image of itself and wants us to buy into the same vision. But thankfully, and fascinatingly, the distortions and elisions of this ideology ultimately surface with striking clarity in this production – in part as a result of Hercules’s stubborn refusal wholly to submit to Sellars’s political reading, and in part because, even in its articulation of love and happiness, the jagged-edged sweetness of Crowe’s voice reminds us that the Enlightenment’s embrace of “everyone” never embraces everyone.

Peter Sellars’s production of Handel’s Hercules ran at the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto between 5 and 30 April 2014.