This musical drama is a little bit like Handel’s Semele. It’s in English, it’s based on a story from classical mythology, and the chorus sees a little more action than it does in many of Handel’s Italian operas. Apparently it was a gigantic flop the first time it was performed. Too bad they didn’t have Joyce DiDonato around back in the 1740s. (Though I give you, that would have been a little confusing. “The mezzo is from where?”)
There is an argument to be made that this opera should have been called not Hercules but Dejanira. And I say this not – or at least not only – because I am one of those rabid Joyce DiDonato fans you hear so much about. Dejanira is the wife of Hercules, and it is the things she does more than the things that he does that form the core of the drama.
The story begins with Dejanira convinced that Hercules, who is off somewhere killing things, has died in battle. Oracles confirm that the hero is dead. Hercules and Dejanira’s son, Hyllus, prepares to go search of his father – you know, just in case – when word arrives that the man himself is back. He brings with him glory and spoils and all that, including the princess Iole, whose father was king of a city that Hercules has just destroyed. Dejanira is soon consumed with jealousy of Iole, who she is convinced her husband has fallen in love with. Hyllus actually does fall in love with Iole, but she turns him away, reminding him that 1) her dad just died 2) his dad was the one who killed him. Iole tries to convince Dejanira that she is not interested in Hercules; Dejanira vents her wrath on her husband, who insists that he is chaste, maritally speaking, and Dejanira suddenly remembers that she has a magic shirt that some guy Nessus told her would restore the love of a straying husband if he – the husband, not Nessus – put it on. So, Dejanira fishes out the magic shirt, and everyone is thrilled because hey, magic shirt! How often do you get to wave one of those around? And then Hercules puts it on and promptly snuffs it, because that Nessus dude was either incompetent or a liar. It’s not a Love Shirt: it’s a Death Shirt. A Painful Death Shirt. Dejanira is understandably somewhat upset about this unfortunate turn of events and goes a little mad in Act III, but she receives word at the end that Hercules ascended to heaven from his funeral pyre, and Iole agrees to marry Hyllus apparently mostly out of pity, and that is the end. The oracles, you see, were right all along. (As is the title to the opera. Dejanira may be responsible for more of the events in this particular story, but what she ultimately causes is Hercules ascending to heaven and becoming a god.)
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