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Handel: Hercules on stage and on DVD

Les Arts Florissants / William Christie
The Barbican Theatre,
London - 14 March 2006

Hercules – William Shimell
Dejanira – Joyce DiDonato
Hyllus – Ed Lyon

Iole – Ingela Bohlin/Hannah Bayodi *
Lichas – Katija Dragojevic
Priest of Jupiter – Simon Kirkbride


Director – Luc Bondy

Set Designer – Richard Peduzzi

Costume Designer – Rudy Sabounghi


William Christie and Les Arts Florissants enjoy a deservedly high reputation as pillars of excellence in the world of baroque music. So much so, that their production of Hercules was sold out months before its arrival in London.

The opening night was one of the hottest tickets in town, and there was a heady buzz of anticipation as the packed audience found their seats. Excitement rose as the orchestra tuned up and the great man took the rostrum, but then there was an off-putting muddly start to the show, with Katija Dragojevic grappling with the billowing curtains to find where she was meant to sit down, then scrabbling around to extricate Joyce Didonato out from under them!  A very bad beginning for a drab staging which unaccountably had been hailed in the programme book as a "visionary combination of music and theatre".

Handel wrote his two secular oratorios within a few months of each other. For Semele he used the libretto Congreve had prepared for John Eccles ill-fated opera (abandoned before it even reached the stage), and thus Handel's work has readily been absorbed into the operatic canon, whilst Hercules has remained somewhat marginalised.   Classicism and satire walked hand in hand during the eighteenth century. London audiences would have been completely familiar with the Hercules legend, and would have looked for a sophisticated multilayered sharpness in the staging to complement the elegance and wit of Handel's music.  

The plot is a real cautionary tale if ever I saw one, which could perhaps have been entitled “ Dejanira, who allowed jealousy to drive her mad ”. Even the style of Thomas Broughton's libretto bears some resemblance to one that Hillaire Belloc would use so successfully:   Jealousy! Infernal pest, Tyrant of the human breast  

Luc Bondy seemed to favour a more serious “face value” approach, setting his action in a concrete post-combat no-man's-land with a thick layer of sand covering the stage and scenery comprised of a wrecked statue and a rusting 40-gallon oil drum.   Such dreary surroundings depress the spirit, and the sad lack of audible words (and no surtitles) diminished concentration.

Acts 1 and 2 were played without a break, so it was a somewhat battle-weary audience that trooped out at the interval and showed a measure of reluctance to return – indeed a sizable proportion did not.  

There were of course, many things to admire. Les Arts Florissants played as stylishly as ever and the chorus provided a resolute and spirited backbone to the drama. Much has been written and superlatives justly abound in describing Joyce DiDonato's agility of voice and her totally rapt and focussed performance. Her slow deterioration into madness was superbly done – although the irreverent thought crossed my mind that some of her head shaking might have been an unconscious attempt to rid herself of sand.  

* Unfortunately Ingela Bohlin had a throat infection, so she mimed the role of Iole on stage whilst it was sung from the pit, very creditably, by Hannah Bayodi, a member of the chorus. It is simply bad luck that Iole is involved in the only two duets in the piece, where the distance between actor and singer was most disconcerting.
Ed Lyon (Hyllus) produced some fine singing and the best diction of the evening, and Simon Kirkbride (High Priest) made a stirring entry through the auditorium. In the title role, the tall figure of William Shimell easily dominated the stage, but vocally he seemed less at ease with the baroque style.  

An evening to remember, but one in which the whole proved somewhat less than the promise of its individual elements.  

Serena Fenwick

(First published on The Opera Critic)

(Rupert Christiansen of The Telegraph conveys our feelings about the Barbican performance best amongst the broad sheet reviews,

and Rodney Milne is positively apopletic: - - I fear this report is on only the first half - two and a quarter hours of it - as I fled foaming none-too-lightly at the mouth at the interval. What on earth is the point of performing one of the first great music dramas set in English if no one involved displays the faintest interest in text? We were a good ten minutes in before you could tell what language was being sung - - the conductor William Christie consistently allowed his players to cover the voices, and a cast that had plainly been given not the slightest encouragement by either conductor or director to invest the words, even when audible, with any dramatic meaning - - the chorus's delivery of the word 'Jealousy' made Inspector Clouseau sound like the most studied of underplayers. As for the production, with Hercules as a Radko Mladic-style thug, lole a cocktail-quaffing bimbo leafing through her fashion mags, and Dejanira a neurotic Californian housewife, I thought it beneath contempt. - - (Opera, May 2006)

Handel - Hercules

Bel Air Classique DVD BAC013 [Palais Garnier, Paris December 2004]

Shimell, DiDonato, Spence, Bohlin, Ernman, Kirkbride
Christie/Orchestra & Chorus of Les Arts Florissants
Directed for TV by Vincent Bataillon

Having shared the evening at the Barbican with SF ( Musical Pointers had not qualified for press tickets) and been reluctant to return after the too-long awaited interval, we have been astonished by the inspired DVD, which has made sense for us in retrospect of the acclamation this production had received when new.

The mainly close-up filming (all the singers marvellously photogenic and living their characters) focused attention on the slowly unfolding drama of grief, hope and disappointment leading to despair, retribution and madness; a heady brew.


Sub-titles (not provided in the Barbican theatre) were essential to grasp fully the language of Broughton's libretto, the meanings of which would often be hard to decipher and comprehend unaided whatever effort was put into diction.

Luc Bondy's stage direction has innumerable subtleties, some funny and simultaneously moving moments - e.g. kitting out Toby Spence, the splendid Hyllus, with map, camera, thermos and laptop for his imminent departure to search for his father, encouraged by the chorus, treated here as individuals whilst singing Handel's " O filial piety, courageous love", was a choice example.

One could give numerous other examples of the fascinating counterpoint between music, text and filming which makes this a DVD which stands up to repeated viewing with undiminished pleasure and wonder. DiDonato's intense acting whilst negotiating music of extreme difficulty with complete naturalness is a marvel to experience.


Peter Grahame Woolf


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© Peter Grahame Woolf