Handel’s Hercules at Barbican Hall – The English Concert/Harry Bicket with Matthew Rose, Alice Coote, Elizabeth Watts, James Gilchrist & Rupert Enticknap

Hercules – Oratorio in three Acts to a libretto by Thomas Broughton after Sophocles and Ovid [concert performance sung in English with English surtitles]

Hercules – Matthew Rose
Dejanira – Alice Coote
Iole – Elizabeth Watts
Hyllus – James Gilchrist
Lichas – Rupert Enticknap

Choir of the English Concert

The English Concert
Harry Bicket

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 4 March, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The English ConcertPhotograph: www.englishconcert.co.uk

Hercules (1744) is an underrated drama in which Handel drew upon his vast experience as a composer of over forty operas to fashion this intense psychological study of sexual jealousy. The irrational basis of Dejanira’s suspicions about her husband makes a closer Shakespearean parallel with The Winter’s Tale than with Othello, and Alice Coote’s interpretation of the character’s unhinged and obsessive nature brought that to the fore. Her yearning for Hercules’s return at the beginning of the work was by turns impulsive and radiant, expressing the full force of a destructive passion which would eventually bring about the tragic demise of the greatest mortal hero in classical mythology. From a purely musical point of view, Coote’s reading might have been deemed rather mannered – however well controlled – but it was certainly compelling and insightful, not least in the fury and delirium of the ‘mad scene’ in Act Three.

Handel called the work a “musical drama” and in form it steers a halfway course between his earlier Italian opera seria and his Biblical English oratorios. In warning of the dangers of jealous rage Hercules serves a similar moral purpose as do the latter, transcending mere entertainment. Its dramatic trajectory was superbly sustained, on the whole, by Harry Bicket and the English Concert, with high voltage delivery of most numbers. In the accompaniment to only a few arias could their contribution have been more characterful and nuanced, but their constant variety and vigour of expression was a notable achievement, from the lively, ebullient Overture (with col legno lower strings at times) to the noble simplicity of Iole’s final aria ‘My breast with tender pity swells’. It also greatly helped that the audience held back applause after all but a few numbers, preserving tension and atmosphere.

In the first part of this presentation, Matthew Rose’s Hercules stood in incisive contrast to Dejanira as a model of coolness and restraint, with his stentorian voice underlining the role’s embodiment in this version as a figure of virtue and fidelity (contrary to the hero’s philandering exploits in many legends). Only in the second part did Rose develop a more impatient and exasperated aspect to the character.

During her initial appearances, Elizabeth Watts made Iole (the supposed object of Hercules’s affections) a figure of innocence and charm. But subsequently she showed herself to be a fearsome match for Dejanira in her altercations with the latter, culminating in her aria ‘Ah! think what ills the jealous prove’. The characters of Hyllus and Lichas serve less dramatic ends, but James Gilchrist and Rupert Enticknap respectively acquitted themselves with reliable musical sense and a convincing stage presence. As Hercules’s son, Gilchrist might well be older than Rose, but he certainly sounded fresh and ardent. Likewise, Enticknap was dependable as the herald, rising to an impressively searing narration of Hercules’s final agonies caused by the poisoned robe of Nessus.

By no means acting in a subsidiary function, the choruses were finely executed by the Choir of the English Concert. The singers frequently instilled force and urgency into their pieces so as to interact fully with the unfolding tragedy. ‘O filial piety’ was notable in this respect, as was the sting in ‘Jealousy, pervading pest’ with vivid depiction of, and fervent admonition against, such evil. In contrast there was a raw, rustic pulse to welcoming home Hercules in ‘Crown the festal day’. All the elements of Handel’s overlooked masterpiece were marvellously served here.

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