Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hercules in America at the COC

I was wondering how celebrated Stage Director Peter Sellars would make three hours of Baroque opera engaging. The answer is, he couldn't.

Peter Sellars

We spent an awfully long time at the Four Seasons Centre last night (April 16) watching  the COC's production of Georg Friderick Handel's musical drama Hercules. After the first 20 minutes or so I was seriously contemplating whether I'd have to leave at the interval. A substantial number of our fellow patrons did just that.

I'm reminded of Rossini's opinion of Wagner's operas, that he, "has good moments, but awful quarters of hours". Yes, yes, I went to university too, and I know all about Da Capo arias, but when the B section comes around for the second or third reiteration, it's time for some judicious cuts. One doesn't have to omit whole arias, just some of the repeats. After a couple of hearings, we've got the idea. This production could have come in under two and half hours and nothing, nothing would have been lost.

Much of the music was really wonderful. Hearing this unfamiliar work I was reminded of how truly brilliant a composer Handel was. So much variety with limited means. The orchestra, under Harry Bicket played beautifully bringing nuance and detail to the score. Sandra Horst's chorus was sensational, but more about them later.

Peter Sellars staging included quite a lot of lying on the stage while singing amongst a whole lot of musically unmotivated movement.  That's hardly surprising as one has to give the soloists and their stage companions something to do during the many solo arias. You can't really have them just stand (or sit) there. (This opera has only arias and choruses, no solo ensembles at all).

Some of the acting was naturalistic, some stylized. At one point, for example, Iöle put her arms around Dejanira's neck from behind making a snaking gesture with her hands (mirroring the snake mentioned in the text). Then she did it again when the music repeated. Then she did it again when the music repeated. I'm sure you get the idea.

As for the singers, Alice Coote as Dejanira was marvellous and I feel privileged to have heard and seen her again. She has a prodigious technique and acting skills to match.

Alice Coote

Soprano Lucy Crowe, as Iöle,  was also really first-rate, performing most of her first aria in an orange prison jumpsuit with a bag over her head. She mostly sang in the bel canto fashion as she would in other operatic repertoire but sometimes sang longer notes with a straight tone in the (probably erroneous) early music manner. I look forward to hearing her again, in different repertoire.

Lucy Crowe

I've been speculating as to why Counter-tenor David Daniels was cast as Lichas, as Handel chose a contralto. It might be to avoid having two mezzos in the cast. He sang well enough, his voice disappearing on the lower notes as falsetto singers' do. He was very effective acting and singing his last aria describing Hercules dying ordeal.

On the basis of his first act arias, I wasn't very impressed with Tenor Richard Croft's Hyllus. Then, in the second act, he sang a more lyric one with a higher tessitura and we got to hear his lovely Mozartean tenor. He is a very fine singer. I'm sorry now I didn't hear his Ferrando in Così fan Tutte in January. Why he spent the entire opera hobbling about on crutches was never made clear.

Ironically, Hercules is the shortest role in the opera. Bass-baritone Eric Owens was physically imposing but never produced the booming sounds I had hoped for. He also had to perform his final aria lying on his back, upstage, sometimes barking out the music, singing and dying theatrically.

Eric Owens

In some ways the COC chorus were the stars of the show. Sellars' approach to staging their pieces was unusual, to say the least. They performed choreographed gestures, in the manner of a children's choir, fitted to the text. Some of them were like Sign Language, others more like semaphore. In the contrapuntal passages they all did the movements with their own section, so sopranos, altos, tenors and basses all moved at the same time as their part, but differently from the other three. For the most part, I thought it looked silly. It didn't, however, detract from the excellent singing, so meticulously rehearsed. That being said, surely their performance of the Jealousy chorus at the end of the second act, motions and all, was the highlight of the night.

The chorus reaches skyward
Well, it's Roberto Devereux next. I wonder what surprises the COC has planned for that one?

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