Sellars’s Hercules

If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen an opera modernized via the use of modern military garb I could buy an opera subscription.  But someone was bound to make it work, right?

I saw the Canadian Opera Company’s co-production of Handel’s Hercules today.  In the early going, wondering whether it could possibly live up to the hype, wondering whether director Peter Sellars’s interpretation could possibly hold together, I consoled myself with the knowledge that the musical side was impeccable.  Conductor Harry Bicket gets the COC orchestra to sound like a period ensemble, the strings repressing their usual vibrato, the soloists singing and enunciating as well as any cast heard at the COC in a long time.

And then a key image.  Hercules has returned from war bringing Iole, the captive princess.  The story is ambiguous, allowing for a number of different approaches and interpretations.  In other encounters with the story I’ve sympathized with Dejanira’s jealousy, largely because Hercules is a swaggering passive aggressive hero who expects the world to revolve around him. While Dejanira doesn’t mean to be the agent of her husband’s death, it has always struck me as karma considering his arrogance, bringing a beautiful girl home.  Usually that is.  This time is different.

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(l-r) David Daniels as Lichas (in background), Richard Croft as Hyllus, Lucy Crowe as Iole and Kaleb Alexander as Soldier in the Canadian Opera Company production of Hercules, 2014. Conductor Harry Bicket, director Peter Sellars, set designer George Tsypin, costume designer Dunya Ramicova and lighting designer James F. Ingalls. Photo: Michael Cooper

Sure, the image is wonderfully modern.  But what’s remarkable about it is what it accomplishes in the plot.  Whatever politician or film I might cite to segue from, it’s by now trite to speak of  the modern era as anti-heroic, a time when tragedy and heroism are no longer possible.  But wait.  Because of this image, we can confidently believe Hercules.  A captive princess –meaning someone looking like a princess– bemoaning her captivity doesn’t usually have any credibility once Dejanira starts to express her fears.   But no princess gets treated this way (as in the picture).  For once Iole looks & sounds like a genuine captive.

Maybe I’m naive, but to me, this changes everything.  The story is entirely different as a result.

It means suddenly that Hercules’ promises of fidelity  to Dejanira (the ones any Hercules makes) aren’t mere promises.  They’re true.  Suddenly honour is possible, because someone kept his promises, even in this nasty post- classical post- heroic post trauma stress disordered age.

We’re watching this happen in George Tsypin’s setting that’s a lot like Handel’s oratorio, a hybrid of old and new.  Broken columns allude to the classical, surrounding wreckage at centre upstage that resembles nothing so much as the coals on a barbecue.  No one walks into this no man’s land except for the one painful aria near the end, Hercules writhing and moaning as he burns up with the poison that’s to kill him.

I’ve written so much about Regietheater (aka “director’s theatre”) and the perpetual battle between directors and singers –for instance in the lengthy preamble to my review of Tapestry’s current show—that one might assume that I dislike directors who depart from the original.  Certainly I can’t help noticing that it’s a funny time for adaptations of all kinds (not just the operatic sort), possibly due to the sophistication of the modern audience.  Directors can assume a great deal with confidence, pushing audiences out of their comfort zones, especially because there’s excitement in the discrepancies, elaborations on old warhorses.

Let’s put it this way.  I’m an opera score, and I am lying anaesthetized on the operating table awaiting surgery.  Dmitri Tcherniakov, Calixto Bieito and Peter Sellars circle, scalpels ready.  While I like all three as an audience member, I’d feel safest –lying on my back that is– with Sellars, after seeing what he did with Tristan und Isolde and Nixon in China.  Handel is well served if not redeemed at his hands, a life saved, if you will.

I really do feel there’s a kind of battle going on between singers & directors, between the musical & dramatic.  That dialectic is fundamental to opera I suppose.  There is one thing Sellars did that frustrated me, even if I giggled by the time the opera ended.  Sellars felt Wagnerian the way he seemed to thwart the usual segmentation of Hercules. How?   I understand numbers to be opportunities for the soloists, moments for them to shine, impress, knock my socks off.  And when they succeed I want to applaud, and if they’re really good I want to scream bravo in approval.  I say this, slightly hoarse from shouting so much today at the end.  But many times arias would end with a provocative bit of stage business that Sellars created to make it almost impossible to properly applaud.  Singers would leave the stage during the postlude (not at all what’s understood by an “exit aria”), the chorus would come out and obscure the singer.  And so the applause was often curtailed, repressed, bottled up to explode at the end: which was fine actually.  Sellars is a clever manipulator –not  unlike Wagner—but on the whole it was a wonderful experience.

Okay, so let me go back to that other way of reading opera with which I began.  Yes indeed, the singing was wonderful.

Eric Owens doesn’t have as many solos as one might wish for in a title character, but then again the opera is entirely about him.  Failure at this point is the ultimate deal-breaker, but not only do we have a powerful presence, but a truly heroic aura.  Owens’ task is to make us believe something mythic vocally & morally: and he succeeds even while making us believe a contemporary version of a classical hero.  As Dejanira Alice Coote is every bit his equal, larger than life in her passions, particularly in her middle and lower voice.  It’s a long role, an opportunity for an extraordinary singer & personality. Coote takes the stage in every sense.    Lucy Crowe immediately makes an impression as Iole, unexpectedly heart-breaking.  Yes she seemed to have a remote control device to turn on my tear-ducts, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one.  This may be the strongest COC cast I’ve ever heard, down to David Daniels’ clear ringing sound, and Richard Croft’s plaintive tone.

Yes Handel looks & sounds gorgeous especially via Bicket’s passionate leadership.  I know I’m seeing it at least once more, but I ask myself: will that be enough?  There are six remaining performance of Hercules, until April 30th.

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4 Responses to Sellars’s Hercules

  1. I too am wondering if twice will be enough

  2. Nex says:

    I enjoyed it more than I expected. A few details I’d like to add; I loved the choreography of the chorus; and there was something fascinating about the background image. I understand Croft had hip surgery, hence the crutches, but somehow that fit in quite well with the story. Crowe is supposed to be five months pregnant, but it sure did not look like it, although that would have made quite an interesting twist.
    Bottom line, I was impressed. Definitely worth seeing.

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