Handel and Haydn Society’s first complete Hercules ran this past weekend at Symphony Hall to considerable acclaim. The musical drama has not, alas, held a high place in the canon. Handel wrote this in a month in 1744, but apparently misunderstood his London audience, imagining that Hercules and Semele (presented by H + H last year) would be as popular as his biblical oratorios. Not only was it not religious; it lay somewhere between opera and oratorio. But Hercules with its English libretto by Thomas Broughton which turned Hercules into a dutiful husband, an 18th-century idea of a hero, is also not easily stageable, although Peter Sellars made a valiant attempt with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2011.
According to Charlotte Valori (for the Barbican):
Handel adapted Hercules from Sophocles’s tragedy “Women of Trachis,” the tale of how Hercules met his death at the unwitting hands of his wife Dejanira, herself tricked by the centaur Nessus many years earlier into keeping a fatal poison under the guise of a love-charm. Nessus, mortally wounded by Hercules when the centaur attempted to rape Dejanira, knew Hercules’s wandering eye all too well: he relied on Dejanira’s eventual desperation to save her marriage in order to revenge himself on the hero from the far side of the grave. “Women of Trachis” is an excoriating study of lust, anger and human jealousy: if you want to know it better, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Dianeira (memorably made into a BBC radio play with Joseph Fiennes as Hyllus) is a great place to begin. Unfortunately, for Hercules, Handel’s librettist Thomas Broughton decided to tidy up the hero’s character for the 18th century, turning him into a virtuous husband. Apart from producing an immediate structural flaw in the plot, instantly reducing the nobility and queenliness of Dejanira’s actions as well as those of Hercules and Nessus, and being laughably comic from a classical point of view, this taming of Hercules neuters the work as a whole. The result is that the whole story is reduced to a paltry little marriage spat which goes wrong, instead of the multi-layered, morally complex vendetta-martyrdom Sophocles gives his hero.
If Handel’s/Broughton’s take at times rose dramatically above the level of a paltry marriage spat, it was partly because Artistic Director Harry Christophers’s vividly willed, it especially from superb chorus, perhaps the most dramatically engaged character in the show, especially in the first half. “Jealousy!” and second act “Love and Hymen,” (yes) an ode to marriage, and “Tyrants no more shall dread” (the one choral piece performed by H + H in 1885 to celebrate Handel’s 200th birthday) were also the numbers that most engaged the composer’s imagination. These examples simply stopped the show.
Boston’s hometown star soprano, Amanda Forsythe, deftly delivered Iola, the beautiful daughter (of the King of Oechali) held captive by Hercules upon his return home, who caused the spiteful jealousy of his wife, Dejanira. Trilling around with the purest of tones in the upper stratosphere without benefit of an oxygen tank, she stunned us, as her feats have done hereabouts so many times. Her impressive coloratura, breathtaking melismas, charming stage manner and apparent ease of execution reminded me of the young Kathleen Battle. Forsythe will return to H + H in December for “A Baroque Christmas.”
Christophers led his able forces in a relentlessly and determinedly engrossing traversal. William Purefoy, a lyrical countertenor, sang the Lichas, a herald, with well-produced and bright high notes and absolutely no hootiness. Samoan bass Jonathan Lemalu brought to Hercules the appropriate bravura and authority, especially in his aria “Oh Jove! What Land is This.” I’d love to hear him do “Oh ruddier than a cherry…” from Acis and Galetea. His bloody death and transfiguration scene carried great poignance. Tenor Robert Murray’s beautiful reclamation of love in “From celestial seats descending” as Hyllus, the young son of Hercules, who loves Iole advanced the drama in convincing oratorio tones. While there wasn’t much she or anyone else (except the chorus) could do with the overlong stretches of expositional recitativos, in the first half, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, a powerful mezzo-soprano, absolutely shone later as Hercules’s wife Dejanira. A plummy singing actress, her passionately crazed Act III jealousy aria, “Where Shall I Fly,” represented the true dramatic nut of the entire endeavor. She returns to H + H for Haydn’s Harmoniemesse next January.
The orchestra, high in energy, accuracy and commitment, never disappointed. At the beginning of at least one number, section leaders Aisslinn Nosky, Guiomar Turgeon, violins; Karina Schmitz, viola; and Guy Fishman, cello, seemed to constitute a fine string quartet. I’d like to hear them in step out for some of that repertoire. The oft-praised Fishman also did his part in an excellent basso continuo section, which included theorbo player Paula Chateauneuf, harpsichordist Ian Watson, and organist Blackwell. Handel knew exactly how to deploy trumpets, and trumpeters Jesse Levine and Bruce Hall inevitably heightened the drama moments. Once more into the breach, H + H’s gem of a chorus gave notice of their chops whenever they stood. As individuals, many appear as star soloists with other ensembles around town (and the globe); collectively they make a truly glorious noise, and they contributed mightily to Friday night’s success.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.