Tonight’s premiere of Tafelmusik’s semi-staged version of Handel’s Hercules was dramatic in more ways than one.
We came to honour Jeanne Lamon, to celebrate her thirty years leading the baroque orchestra. While it was a commemoration of past achievements in the presence of friends & collaborators, it also represents the beginning of a new era, with the announcement of a new media label “Tafelmusik”.
Hercules was a wonderful choice of vehicle, and an apt symbol. While the work might suggest heroism yet it is remarkable for its wonderful opportunities to showcase female talent, just like Tafelmusik itself. And the team responsible for the production, including long-time collaborators Marshall Pynkoski & Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg (Opera Atelier co-artistic directors, who staged & choreographed) suggest that the Tafelmusik brand will be more than just the orchestra, on different media platforms.
I didn’t know the work being presented (Handel’s Hercules surely deserves to be better known), and came away quite happy with the semi-staged format used on this occasion. No one was really in costume, except perhaps Laura Pudwell who wore the generic male outfit: because she was playing a man. Within the first 15 minutes I was completely drawn into the classical world being presented.
Some passions are more conducive to a baroque sensibility. While I resisted Hercules’ great aria of rage –partly because there seems to be something oxymoronic about a man in pain singing an aria, partly because it feels unseemly for a great strong man to go on at such length—the various complaints of the women carried me away immediately, because I suppose they are what I expect from baroque opera. And my prejudice echoes remarks from Lamon, who said that she found ” the male characters a bit less interesting, perhaps a bit more two-dimensional” compared to these wonderful women’s parts; after seeing the work tonight I think she’s absolutely right, and there’s nothing Herclues could ever do to steal the spotlight from his wife.
Sumner Thompson brought a genuinely heroic presence to Hercules, but I believe Handel was more interested in the passions of his women. There was Hercules’ jealous wife Dejanira, a wonderfully varied part that in some respects seems well-served in an oratorio or semi-staged context, precisely because we have no visual distractions to upstage the vocal fireworks. At times quietly brooding, then explosively angry, and uncontrollably jealous, Dejanira is a wonderful role that was fully realized in Allyson McHardy’s wonderfully passionate singing. And McHardy had a particularly affecting moment in a silent embrace near the end. Soprano Natalie Paulin was the catalyst for McHardy’s rage, as the captive princess Iöle, a plaintive contrast to Dejanira. And a third female, the reliable Laura Pudwell as the herald Lichas, had possibly the most poignant moment of all, quietly describing Hercules’ agony.
Perhaps it’s a foregone conclusions that Jeanne Lamon’s music direction should be masterful. I’ve marvelled at the generosity of the orchestra, made available to Opera Atelier and then conducted not by Lamon but by Ivars Taurins for the annual Messiah concerts, where I have seen so many other orchestras controlled by one person –usually male—regardless of whether that leader was good or not. The sharing has made the ensemble stronger, a wise strategy.
Tafelmusik repeat Hercules January 20, 21 and 22 at Koerner Hall.