Notes and Editorial Reviews
A crystalline, uplifting and extrovert conception.
Handel wrote Hercules towards the end his composing career, in 1745, when he had chosen to concentrate on oratorio rather than opera – probably as much for commercial reasons as any other. It was not a success: the withdrawal of at least one principle, audience indifference and a general run of theatrical bad luck meant it received few, and undistinguished, performances. Even when revived seven years later, Hercules didn’t seem to inspire its London audiences. It’s generally acknowledged not only that Handel’s entrepreneurial drive had flagged by this time, but also that public taste was moving on.
What’s more, Hercules has neither the strong religious component nor the spectacle of Italian opera. Its libretto is by Thomas Broughton of Salisbury drawing on Sophocles’ Trachiniae, Senecca’s Hercules Oetaeus and the Metamorphoses. His construction, one that Handel built on with outstanding skills and sensitivities, was more akin to musical drama. That was, indeed, how Hercules was actually first billed – a drama per musica with ‘acts’ rather than ‘parts’. The chief theme is jealousy; there is much scope for some fine singing to ‘illustrate’ the inevitable tensions that surround that emotion.
We’re now lucky to have this stylish and accomplished performance from a cast of singers and players well-versed in the idiom and who provide a clear, compelling and simple account; it’s full of punch, nuance and consistency in equal measure. The articulation of the English libretto is particularly pleasing, although that is further supplemented by dramatic insight from all the principles. Nicola Wemyss (Dejanira) navigates her way through Begone, my fears [CD1 tr.15] with grace and deftness – yet doesn’t overlook the implicit depths of feeling. Exemplary.
Hercules is the stock hero – off at war (for the last time, he hopes) at the beginning of Act I; he has captured the beautiful Iöle, of whom Hercules’ wife, Dejanira, is instantly jealous. Iöle repels the advances of Hyllus, not least because he killed her father. The work may be thought to have reached its conclusion, if one without climax, at the end of Act II when Dejanira’s jealousy is dispelled and Iöle is to be set free. But the melodramatic episode of Hercules’ death (burnt by the poison on the robe his wife used to assure herself of his fidelity) and eventual immolation take up Act 3. Things nevertheless end happily (for some) with the marriage of Iöle and Hyllus.
The human drama in this really quite simple set of dilemmas and struggles relies on the music to make its impact; Handel certainly devoted much thought to conveying as forcefully as needed the subtleties of apology (Dejanira for doubting Hercules’ fidelity), acceptance of originally rejected love (Iöle’s for Hyllus) and regret (almost everyone has something to lament). It’s generally felt he succeeded admirably and that Hercules is one of his better oratorios. There are five current complete recordings in the catalogue.
The strongest competitive recording is undoubtedly that by Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre on Archiv (4695322). That remains a classic, and something of a benchmark so the singing, playing and theatrical and musical direction on the current release would have had to be extraordinary to better it. They aren’t, quite – but they are very good indeed and full of life and integrity. There really is much to enjoy here. In particular, the seemingly effortless strength used to convey character… there is control and conviction in the singing of an aria like Hyllus Where congeal’d the northern streams [CD1 tr.12] that’s well-supported by the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra’s strings. It really zings along into the following chorus, O filial piety.
The booklet that comes with this three-CD set is rather sparse: a short essay with more general background than focus on Hercules itself; a synopsis of the plot in English and German; and short resumés of the singers only, in English. So this may not be your first choice. But Naxos has done the work proud with this crystalline conception and execution of one of Handel’s last oratorios from confident performers who are obviously enjoying everything there is to enjoy in its uplifting and extrovert score.
This performance – a live recording – has pace, vibrancy and delicacy. But it’s the sense of energy and delight in making this music that will probably remain with you on repeated listenings.
-- Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International