Six months into my Baroque voyage of discovery, it’ll soon be time to jump in at the deep end for the London Handel Festival. From fully-staged operas to concerts, solo recitals and pasticci, the next month will offer a veritable banquet of Handel in all his forms. Before the Festival proper gets underway, we had an aperitif to enjoy: something of an oddity.
Hercules was first performed in 1745 when Handel had moved away from the Italian operas with which he’d made his name and was writing oratorios, better calculated to appeal to English taste. Hercules sits uneasily between the classical themes of Italian opera and the oratorio format of the (largely Biblical) new works Handel was producing for his London audience. It’s neither fish nor fowl and, for a newcomer (as, perhaps, for Handel’s own public), that can prove challenging.
What to expect from a tale of Hercules? It could well have been a rambunctious comedy about the hero’s love life; but Handel chooses something very different. He focuses on the end of the legend. Hercules (Matthew Rose) returns home to his palace in Thessaly in triumph, laden with the spoils of victory. Fragile and isolated, his wife Dejanira (Alice Coote) has been waiting: less placid than Penelope, increasingly convinced that her long-absent husband must be dead. His return throws her into a tumult of joy; but that is short-lived.
One of Hercules’ captives is the lovely Iole, princess of Oechalia (Elizabeth Watts); and no sooner has Dejanira laid eyes on her than she begins to wonder. What hold does this virginal beauty have over her husband? Denials are in vain. The green-eyed monster has Dejanira in its grip, leading her to a desperate, fatally misguided attempt to reclaim her husband’s love. Circling this tragic trio are Hercules’ and Dejanira’s son Hyllus (James Gilchrist), who pines with unrequited love for Iole; and Hercules’ loyal herald Lichas (Rupert Enticknap).
Reviews from every leg of this concert tour have been hugely positive and indeed I have nothing but praise for the performances of the musicians of the English Concert and the talented singers. However, I confess I wasn’t hugely won over by the music itself. Perhaps it just shows that my head is easily turned by the flashy and the flamboyant, but I found Hercules considerably more demanding to listen to than something like Xerxes, which it postdates by only seven years. Hercules obliges you to concentrate: it expects you to work at it. I can well imagine why Handel’s first audiences found it so difficult (it received only two performances in January 1745): the opening is unremittingly bleak. It only springs to life with Dejanira’s Begone my fears; and in the entire piece there was no melody that lodged itself in my head.
Having said that, there were plenty of moments which struck me, primarily because the cast and orchestra skilfully drew out the drama of the music. For example, the final chorus of the first part – ‘Jealousy, infernal pest‘ – captured me with its crisp articulation and measured, slow-paced beat, which lent it the appropriately ominous feel of a hangman’s drum. The martial paean preceding Hercules’ triumphant entrance was also a stirring moment, but that’s primarily because I’m a simple soul and if you give me a rousing chorus accompanied by trumpets then I’m happy. But there were two performances in particular where this ‘English opera’, for me, flourished into life.
If dazzling vocal elaboration impressed me in the recent Oracolo, then Hercules balanced the scales with some powerful emotional engagement from its two female leads. Alice Coote, who was the first singer I saw live in a Baroque opera (ENO’s Xerxes back in September), turned in a veritable tour-de-force of gnawing jealousy as the troubled Dejanira. Her acting, which was initially (appropriately) restrained, blossomed in Begone my fears and her expressive, mobile features came to life. Armed with opera glasses, I spent much of the time watching her face as Dejanira’s riot of emotions tumbled across it: grief dispelled by joy; girlish light-heartedness; and then, slowly, insidiously, the rising tide of envy. While most of her colleagues sang from their music stands, Coote effectively gave a semi-staged performance and the real high points came in the second half, where she drew every shade of dramatic feeling out of her two big scenes, both of which brought the house down.*
The first of these was the wonderful Resign thy club, in which the music itself echoed the relentless, needling nagging of martial discord. Matthew Rose sat back in his chair looking weary and sullen with one foot resting on the opposite knee, the very image of a henpecked husband, while Coote gradually whipped herself up into a shrewish frenzy, whirling back and forth. Her mockery was echoed by the sudden dragged-out yowl of violins underscoring her complaints about Cupid, the ‘whining boy‘, which made me laugh. And visually the scene was played for humour too: Coote’s dynamic, indignant, coiled energy suddenly brought up against Rose’s towering figure. (A similar impact to the physical stand-off between Rose’s Seneca and Sarah Connolly’s Nero in Poppea.)
And if this scene was played well, the same or more is true of the mad scene. Where shall I fly? was the only piece of music I knew in advance** and Coote carried it off superbly. Veering from cold horror into frenzied visions of Furies and serpents, she punctuated it with moments of almost fearful yearning. ‘Hide me!‘ was breathed, as a sudden halt to the tumult of imagination – and then she swept back into an insanity that bordered on hysteria. This was a woman convincingly unhinged by grief. It’s a long scene and much of it is recitative but Coote kept everyone absolutely gripped.
Spiralling from throbbing low tones to the odd piercing high note, she overcame the Barbican’s dodgy acoustics without seeming even to try; and yet there were moments when her notes were almost whispered: as fine and delicate as cobwebs. Her fine singing was very much bound to her emotions, which added to the dramatic impact of the character. Dejanira is a grand, almost Shakespearean role, I think – her misguided jealousy echoes that of Othello and there were shades of Hamlet or Lear in her recitatives. I was very impressed: we were very, very lucky to have seen so consummate an actress in the role.
My other high point was Elizabeth Watts. I’d been looking forward to seeing her live, having got to know her voice through the CD of Arne’s Artaxerxes (another Mandane!), and she rewarded my anticipation: her voice a velvety dark soprano and her performance as deeply felt as Coote’s. Iole doesn’t have as many chances to show fire, but Watts turned in some gorgeous gentler arias, such as the heartbreaking Peaceful rest, and the bucolic How blest the maid. I’m never quite convinced by high-born characters longing to be humble shepherds, but Watts sang with some lovely rippling notes which echoed the bubbling of the streams and springs referenced in the aria.
She was another one I watched closely with the opera glasses: when she was out of her seat, her face always reflected exactly the right emotions, whether she was singing or not; and her grief and torment were palpable. When she sang My breast with tender pity swells she seemed to take her identification with the character to the point of tears; I don’t know if they were real or not, from that distance, but the point is that I believed them to be. However, Iole does have a moment of greater vocal splendour in the dramatic Ah! think what ills the jealous prove at the end of the first part; and Watts was excellent, with a commanding high note on one of her ‘Adieu’s that thrilled me to the bone. I long to see her in a more imperious role: I’ll have to keep an eye on her schedule.
In the face of such towering performances from the two ladies, the men seemed slightly overshadowed; and I say that despite Rose’s Seneca having been one of the reasons I bought this ticket in the first place. (Me! Booking a ticket on account of a bass! I can feel the shockwaves going through you now.) I was happy to finally hear a little more of Enticknap, whom I recently encountered in Vivaldi’s Oracolo. His Lichas doesn’t have a huge amount to do, but his big moment is the long recitative in the final act which reports Hercules’ fate: here he sang with sombre grace and a sense of growing horror which I found very effective. As Hyllus, James Gilchrist was vocally striking with a light tenor that was surprisingly agile. I’m not used to hearing such lively coloratura from tenors and so it sounded strange to my ears at first, though it grew on me. However, I don’t think I’ll offend anyone by pointing out that visually he didn’t quite convince as Coote’s and Rose’s son; although he certainly did suggest an air of youthful shyness and self-deprecation. Indeed, there were moments where his Hyllus seemed almost neurotic, with his nervous gestures echoing the fluttering coloratura of his voice.
By now I shouldn’t be surprised that Rose, playing the title character, had relatively little to do: despite the title, there’s no doubt that Dejanira is the musical and emotional heart of this piece. Nevertheless he had some fine moments and I thought again – as I did in Poppea – that compared to other basses I’ve heard, he seems to have a lot of richness and colour in his tones. He has some swaggering coloratura here, very appropriate to such a character as Hercules, and his stand-out aria for me was the deliciously self-aggrandising Alcides’ name in ancient story. Even here, though, Coote’s reaction shots stole the show: she perched at the edge of the stage peering back with growing disbelief at her husband’s pompous catalogue of his glories.
So: what to make of this curious piece? For the singing and the musicianship I was conscious that I was in extremely good hands, and yet the music itself left me a little cold, for which I can only point the finger at Handel himself. Other reviews by more knowledgeable people have been so enthusiastic that I’m sure I’m missing something, but I felt that large parts of it were slightly too long and slightly too heavy. That said, it’s no bad thing to have to work at appreciating something once in a while: I can’t always have bravura sparkle handed to me on a plate, much as I love it. And even though certain parts of it were challenging, I had the joy of watching Alice Coote in full dramatic flow, and the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth Watts in the flesh. These two splendid women dominated; and it looks likely that my main legacy of the evening will be a renewed determination to see them tackle other roles in the Baroque canon.
* As a newbie, I was surprised that no one applauded after the arias in the first part. There were certainly some which deserved it; and I wondered if this was due to differing audience traditions between the opera and the oratorio type – the gentleman next to me didn’t applaud once, save at the interval and the curtain call. However, in the second part the audience suddenly woke up and there were several cases where individual arias met with applause.
** It was one of the arias in focus during Sarah Connolly’s Insights masterclass at the Royal Opera House, which I attended a few weeks ago.