Handel – Hercules / Opéra National de Paris 2004 (2)

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The key item in this production is probably the black marble statue of Hercules that we see in pieces throughout, and then whole at the end. It’s one of the first things to appear on the stage. In Act I, as Lichas (Malena Ernman, who has a lovely big solid voice) explains what is going on, she lifts up the billowy dark front curtain to reveal the despondent Dejanira (DiDonato), who is curled up on a few pillows on the floor with a row of pieces of fruit by her feet and her head and arms resting on the head of the statue.

After Dejanira’s beautifully sad “there in myrtle shades reclined” she lies down between two chunks of the marble man.

The pieces move around. During Act II, the torso is upright for Iole (Ingela Bohlin) to lean against as she ponders her situation, and at one point later on there is nothing but an arm. Hercules is literally in pieces. We see the statue as a statue and not as bits of one only at the end, after he has died. At the very last, as the chorus is celebrating the ascent of the hero to heaven, his statue appears, to the awe of the assembled people – only when dead and turned into a god is Hercules whole at last.

And this makes sense, because as a human being, Hercules is not very human. He comes swaggering onto the stage in Act I, proclaiming his glory, and does not appear to even notice his overwhelmed and upset wife. The chorus helps him out here – in their celebration of his arrival, they cut her off from him. (In general, the chorus is not Dejanira’s friend in this opera. They back her in to corners, hector her about her jealousy, and express joy just when she feels despair.) The triumphant hero is followed by Iole, initially hidden in a hooded army coat and carrying a funerary urn. Hercules does not seem much concerned with her. But oddly enough, in Act II as she sits thinking about how lucky humble shepherd maids are compared to poor princesses like her who keep getting jerked around, he sneaks in and leaves her a ring, and later a necklace. Iole likes these and seems pleased – it’s unclear whether she sees Hercules or not – but she tries to give the necklace to Dejanira to pacify her. The ring she keeps, and it reappears later as she mockingly tells Hyllas to man up like his father and not be so loving and girly; during this part, too, she exchanges a knowing smile with Hercules, who has reappeared. Does Dejanira have something to worry about after all? Aside from that odd little interaction, the production gives us no reason to think so.

Hercules’s argument with Dejanira in Act II is more to the point. During “Alcides name the latest story” he lectures her about the “luster” of his glory, to the accompaniment of what I can only describe as a sort of ‘toot toot wheeze wheeze’ pattern in the woodwinds, which does not sound quite as heroic as Hercules would perhaps like. His obsession with glory comes off as a little petty – and he remains stoic even as his angry and desperate wife attempts to move him with insults, and even more stony when she starts ripping his military decorations, and ultimately his shirt, off. This is a man who is 1) immovably faithful as a rock (isn’t there a Mozart aria about that? I forget) and 2) profoundly uninterested in his wife. Later, when he dies, his death-throes aria is “I rage!” and “ow!” more than anything communicating deep regrets or ambivalence or anything that would make us see him as a person. This is not a failure of drama or a failure of music – it’s a point about what sort of figure Hercules is.

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