Handel’s Hercules, 1745

Friday August 4th

The Women of Trachis

Sophocles’ lesser-known drama is a tale of the tragic consequences of sexual desre, deceit and jealousy. Backstory: Hercules is off on another adventure deserting his wife Dejanira yet again. Though ostensibly he’s gone to defeat the king of Oechalia who slighted him, she finds out it’s really for his sexual desire for the king’s daughter Iole. He sacks the city, kills the king, and brings her home as his lover. You can guess the iron consequences of all that. But in his “musical drama” Handel’s Iole is more ambiguous. Nothing in the opera shows or tells directly of Hercules’ passion for Iole, and Hercules’ real intent in sacking Oechalia is merely a rumour. Hercules plays the misunderstood loving husband, Iole plays innocent and virtuous; and so Dejanira’s jealously, descending into madness and unwitting homicide of Hercules, appears unfounded. But was it? In Handel’s version, we’ll never know. (But in our production, Dejanira sees Hercules silently give Iole a ring and pearl necklace. That does seem outside Handel’s exploration of unfounded jealousy.) The Hercules myth was revisited throughout centuries - splendid hero or braggard symbol of abuse and violence “at both a global and domestic level”? Dip into the fascinating study by Richard Rowland, Killing Hercules: Deianira and the Politics of Domestic Violence, from Sophocles to the War on Terror. Saint-Saens’ version, Déjanire  premiered in 1911 (its creation is a fascinating story.)

Our Production

Hercules was written as an oratorio, and never produced as an opera in Handel’s life. French director Luc Bondy recasts it as an opera, repetitive libretto and all, and stresses the importance, from Greek theatre,  of recitative and chorus. The mad scene when Dejanira confronts the Furies, "Where shall I fly?" is one of the highlights of the score. Wikipedia comments: It contains many changes of tempo and mood, following the character's panic and despair. The chorus comment on the action after the manner of the choruses in Greek tragedy, with varied and inventive music. Some of the choruses contain massive fugues, others are "jolly" tunes. The work makes extensive use of musical chromaticism. For musicologist Paul Henry Lang, the excellence of the libretto, the masterly characterisation through music, and Handel's superlative musical invention make Hercules "the crowning glory of Baroque music drama". Bondy agrees in part: There is something audacious in its expressiveness, that breaks away from the canons. The mad Aria, sung by Dejanira, is infused with powerful truthfulness…. Musically speaking the opera is revolutionary, whereas the libretto is a thousand times more reactionary than the music. The mezzo Joyce DiDonato takes on the central role of Dejanira. It is hard to fault her powerful and brilliant acting, which makes her extraordinary vocal performance all the more outstanding. Listen to her mad scene, Where shall I fly, on YouTube, with score.

Bondy on dramatic theatre:

…the Greeks invented a form and for that form they had myths at their disposal. Today we have the forms but we no longer have the myths.
Hercules music GF Handel, libretto Thomas Broughton Director: Luc Bondy Les Arts Florissants, cond. William Christie Hercules: William Shimell, bass Dejanira, wife of Hercules: Joyce DiDonato, mezzo- soparano Hyllus, son of Hercules: Toby Spence, tenor Iole, daughter of king of Oechalia: Ingela Bohlin, soprano Lichas, a herald: Malina Ernman, soprano Paris Opera, 2004