Hercules review – Handel’s neglected opera is an extraordinary study in marital jealousy

Barbican, London
It was never staged in Handel’s lifetime, and rarely is in ours, yet this concert performance makes an outstanding case for the work’s dramatic qualities

Handel referred to Hercules as a “musical drama”, and in essence it is an opera, even though it was never staged in the composer’s lifetime and rarely is in ours. This Barbican concert performance under Harry Bicket nevertheless made an outstanding case for the work’s dramatic qualities, which were vividly underlined by both cast and conductor.

The story relates how the legendary hero Hercules, having destroyed the city of Oechalia, returns home with the princess Iole – whose father he has killed. His wife Dejanira becomes increasingly but irrationally jealous of the newcomer. Remembering a robe given to her which is supposed to revive the flames of love, Dejanira sends it to her husband – but it turns out that the robe is poisoned, and Hercules dies in agony.

The title role was purposefully delivered by bass Matthew Rose, who sought out its humanity and occasional humour; but it runs a clear second to that of his wife, Dejanira, an extraordinary study of the destructive impact of jealousy on a tempestuous nature, here sung by Alice Coote. The full resources of her wide-ranging mezzo were brought into play to define it, and the result was a tour de force of colouristic display placed firmly in the service of imaginative dramatic exploration.

As the innocent Iole, Elizabeth Watts’s fresh and lucid soprano moved around Handel’s notes with graceful expressiveness. James Gilchrist brought clarity and focus to Hercules’ son, Hyllus, while countertenor Rupert Enticknap gave shape and sensitivity to the secondary role of the herald Lichas. The choir and orchestra of The English Concert were on impeccable form under Bicket, with high-definition articulation and tonal quality underlying everything they did; but this was inevitably Coote’s evening, as well as Handel’s.


George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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