Handel – Hercules / Opéra National de Paris 2004 (3)

(Previous section here.)

And then there’s all the sand and the fruit. The action in this production takes place in a large, dark, cell-like concrete space. Sometimes there is a set of big square steps to the left; at times, during Dejanira’s “Cease, ruler of the day, to rise” aria at the end of Act II and when Hercules is dying, we see sunlight through an opening. Otherwise, things are dark.

Here is “cease, ruler of the day,” because the dissonant strings at the beginning of the recitative are awesome and – well, this is one of the best parts of the whole thing in my opinion. (Some of those repetitions of “to your bright beams” just kill me.)

In addition to the darkness, and general drabness – everyone is dressed in black and army green most of the time – the floor is not stone, but sand. The whole thing could make a person rather thirsty, and this is precisely the point. Remember the pieces of fruit next to Dejanira’s huddling place at the very beginning, as she awaits, fearfully, bad news to come? Lichas picks up an orange, cuts it, and squeezes the juice into a glass for her, but the hero’s wife is not interested. Later, as Hercules proclaims that he is ready to rest and recreate, he’s munching on apples. Later still, as Iole sits wishing she were a shepherd lass, we see that she has been provided with a magazine to entertain her in her exile, as well as a fruit smoothie (from the color I would guess mango) in a glass with a little straw. She doesn’t drink it, and the full glass just sits there next to the statue.

And when Dejanira goes mad with grief and regret that what she thought was a Love Shirt was in fact a Death Shirt, she plays obsessively with handfuls of the sand. The contrast seems to between thirst and enjoyment, or desire and its fulfillment. And this is a world where the sand wins, at least for Dejanira.

There are also some bits of the staging that make slightly less sense. In addition to the smoothie and the magazine, Iole’s captors have provided her with a little plastic handbag that contains an emery board – we find this out when Dejanira comes sweeping in to rain jealous rage down upon the young lady’s head. During “when beauty sorrow’s liv’ry wears” Dejanira sits the younger woman down, whips out the emery board, and begins doing Iole’s nails. This is perhaps the most terrifying manicure scene I have ever witnessed on the operatic stage. (It is to my knowledge the only manicure scene I have ever witnessed on the operatic stage, but to emphasize merely its originality as a concept would be to miss the point.)

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