The stage is starkly lit, scattered with the broken fragments of ruined pillars. The scenic palette, a series of blacks, whites and greys. Then, at a stroke, after a surprisingly upbeat overture, the strings strike a sombre, minor, chord, and three hours of intense, demanding, yet supremely beautiful art emerges – the Canadian Opera Company’s production of George Frederick Handel’s and director Peter Sellars’s Hercules.
Peter Sellars melts boundaries with his art, and this Hercules is no exception. In it, a story created by Sophocles 2500 years ago blends Handel’s 18th century vividly with our own times. The world inside the opera theatre, notoriously separate from “real life”, meshes powerfully and effortlessly into the world outside. Actors and singers onstage meld with their characters, so that actor and character fuse inseparably together. And most importantly, Sellars’s art merges us all into a vision of life and redemption which is his own special gift to his audience.
Hercules is a late Handel oratorio, written in 1744, based on Sophocles’s The Women of Trachis that explores the myth of that greatest Greek hero, returning gloriously from war with a prized, beautiful captive, who nonetheless is done in by jealously and misunderstanding, and dies a horrible, agonizing death. Sellars, approaching the oratorio in 2010, for its original production in Chicago, decided to make his returning hero an American soldier, his captive a prisoner from those Middle Eastern wars. But Sellars is very discreet and delicate with the contemporary references in this staging. He has not set the opera in the U.S. of 2010. Instead, he has created a complex set of references in costumes, sets and actions, that blend Greek tragedy, Enlightenment philosophy and the contemporary world to illuminate timeless themes and emotions in our collective history and consciousness.
Primarily, Sellars has created a tableau of intense, real, human emotion, which, even at its most extreme, is approachable and powerfully direct. In this, he has been aided by a cast of brilliant actor/singers, all returning to the roles they created in the original production, who bring to life every word, every nuance, every trill, every accent of Handel’s score. Alice Coote was mesmerizing as Dejanira, Hercules’s wife, who careens through the entire catalogue of emotions befitting the wife of a returning soldier. At times joyous, fearful, jealous, revengeful, guilt-stricken, Coote used her glorious and controlled mezzo-soprano voice to completely draw us into the psychological world of her complex character. Lucy Crowe, as the prisoner Iole, was correspondingly angelic, sensual and heartbreaking, a woman who sings her first aria, Bright Liberty from under an Abu Ghraib hood, and whose sufferings animate the entire piece. Crowe’s soaring soprano held an entire house breathless time and again during the performance. Counter-tenor David Daniels was powerful as the herald Lichas (his first gorgeous aria sets the tone for the entire evening) and Richard Croft an engaging Hyllus, Hercules’s son (who played the entire part on crutches, a recent addition to the production’s concept). And Eric Owens, although not given that much to sing by Handel in the title role, dominates the proceedings nonetheless as a man, who from his first entrance, has clearly been defeated by the wars of which he is supposedly the hero, by the death and horror which have mastered him, even in his supposed “victory”.
A special word needs to be said for the COC orchestra, under the direction of Harry Bicket. They produced one of the most beautiful orchestral performances we’ve heard here in many years, by any group of musicians. Handel’s music is, of course, at the heart of this work, and his score for Hercules is taut, agonizing, surprisingly dissonant, emotionally rich. The orchestra, under Bicket’s direction, explored every corner of Handel’s musical terrain, providing the solid, psychologically nuanced underpinning for all that was about to unfold on stage.
However, in the end, it is Sellars’s vision, as much as that of Sophocles or Handel, that provides the power of this production. At the end of the evening, after a harrowing hour on stage bathed in the red hues of its jealousy, rage, and violent death, a pure white light bursts over the set, and Iole emerges to sing an aria of forgiveness and reconciliation to bind the wounds of a stricken community. At that moment, the harsh fateful tragedy of Sophocles, even the more positive Enlightenment philosophy of Handel, gives way to a thoroughly modern vision of peace and hope, which, despite all the horrors we have witnessed, remains the evening’s enduring, surprising legacy.
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