Wednesday, February 06, 2013


HERCULES           Revival
Aalto Theater Oper
27 January 2013 

Musikalische Leitung / Alexander Eberle
Inszenierung / Dietrich W. Hilsdorf
Bühne / Dieter Richter
Kostüme / Renate Schmitzer
Dramaturgie / Norbert Abels
Choreinstudierung / Alexander Eberle  

Hercules / Almas Svilpa
Dejanira, seine Frau / Michaela Selinger
Hyllus, ihr Sohn / Andreas Hermann
Iole, Prinzessin von Oechalia / Christina Clark
Lichas, ein Herold / Marie-Helen Joël 

Chöre des Aalto-Theaters
Essener Philharmoniker
Almas Svilpa as Hercules

If Aida should really be entitled Amneris, because she does most of the heavy lifting in Verdi’s opera, Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) might well have renamed Hercules (1744) after its central character Dejanira. It is she, after all, who does all the odious doing. 

The premiere of Hercules on 5 January 1745 at the King''s Theater in London fell prey to a number of misfortunes, which necessitated last-minute musical revisions as well as forcing the opera to be presented as an oratorio. Which is why some call it an "operatorio."  The fiasco led it into obscurity, and it remains infrequently revived to this day. 

Two seasons ago, the Aalto Theater Opera in Essen mounted Hercules as an opera in an acclaimed new production by Dietrich Hilsdorf, and it’s currently back in repertory with many members of the same cast. While the plot takes place in Attic mythology, Hilsdorf frames the story, based on Sophocles’ Women of Trachis and the Ninth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, within an imposing but somewhat frayed 18th century palace, deftly designed by Dieter Richter with churrigueresque costumes by Renate Schmitzer. 

The story as adapted by librettist Thomas Broughthon has Dejanira turning madly jealous when she learns that her demi-god husband Hercules has brought home a beautiful trophy from his victories in battle: the princess Iole. Determined to make sure that Hercules is never unfaithful to her again, Dejanira presents him with a cloak suffused with a potion supposedly meant make him abjure his dalliant ways.   But the cloak turns out to be toxic, and Hercules, for all his physical might, is rendered helpless against its hideous ravages. 
Michaela Selinger

This merry mise en scène is furthered, illuminated, and sometimes interrupted by a cornucopia of arias, ensembles and choruses which show Handel at his most inspired in writing for the human voice. For both Handel fans and lovers of 18th century music, Hercules is a feast for the ears. 

Michaela Selinger comes off larger than life as the scorned Dejanira -- both physically and vocally. She is at her best in “Cease, Ruler of the day...” in which Dejanira laments her suspicions of Hercules’ involvement with Iole and resolves to regain him.  American Christina Clark’s silvery Iole spins a delightful contrast to Selinger’s darker declamations. Her agility and subtle phrasing spurs an appetite for hearing more of her. 
Christina Clark as Iole

Almas Svilpa may be vocally a tad beefy for the title role, but he casually upsets expectations of what a Handel bass should sound like, juggling his voice with mesmerizing accuracy and dazzling aplomb. Despite its weight, Svilpa’s voice never worries the ear. His affable stage presence projects Hercules’ randy propsensities with an how-can-I-help-it? insoucience that somehow turns the super-hero’s horrendous comeuppance into what once was and still might be called black comedy. 

Andreas Hermann is a sympatheic Hyllus and Marie Helen Joël rounds out the cast as a comely herald, Lichas. 

Alexander Eberle leads the augmented Chorus of the Aalto Theater and the versatile Essen Philharmonic with energy and cool clarity. 

Hercules started life as a flop, but Handel never forgot his hero.  In 1750, he composed his oratorio The Choice of Hercules, in which two women representing Pleasure and Virtue offer the youthful half-god the choice between two irreconcilable paths. It was first presented at Covent Garden on 1 March 1751. Handel's reappraisal of Hercules, whose personality in this later work inclines toward virtue, may have reflected the composer's own life choices. Handel was firmly as astute in practical matters as he was brilliant at plying his trade; he took pleasure in virtue, because it usually paid off. Throughout a long career that had many heights and a number of valleys, including several serious health issues, he never baroque the bank. 

Photos: Aalto Theater 
Graphics, Post-production: Sam H. Shirakawa 

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