Handel’s Hercules

Handel
Hercules

Dejanira – Joyce DiDonato
Hercules – William Shimell
Iole – Hannah Bayodi
Hyllus – Ed Lyon
Lichas – Katija Dragojevic
Priest of Jupiter – Simon Kirkbride

Orchestra and Chorus of Les Arts Florissants
William Christie


Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 15 March, 2006
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

The dead acoustics of the Barbican Theatre (not the Hall) did their utmost to mar my enjoyment of this performance of Handel’s “Hercules”. From my seat in row P of the stalls, the effect was the aural equivalent of looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The result was that voices did not project, many words were inaudible and everything was at a low level. It may have been where I was sitting, but others expressed similar comments.

Handel called his drama “Hercules”, but it is Dejanira who is the most important and interesting character. Suffice it to say that her first husband, the centaur Nessus, had given her a garment, which was said to “revive the expiring flames of love”. She gives it to Hercules as an apology for doubting his fidelity. Unfortunately for him, it contains poison, which causes a painful death for Hercules. Dejanira, tormented, descends into madness.

Luc Bundy’s production, in a single, bare set, ably conveys Dejanira’s mental disintegration, just as Joyce DiDonato presents it physically as she writhes in the dust.

DiDonato has the technique to surmount Handelian divisions with ease and fluency, though I thought “Resign thy club” was a shade too fast for comfort. It was a fine portrayal. She was even willing to distort her lovely tone in the mad-scene: the splendid aria “Where shall I fly?” near the end of Act III. Even in this golden age of mezzos it is always a welcome pleasure to listen to her.

One unplanned event was the serious throat infection of Swedish soprano Ingela Bohlin. Although Bohlin acted the role of Iole, Hannah Bayodi, a member of the Chorus of Les Arts Florissants, sang it from the pit. Bayodi did a very creditable job, her silvery voice supple and sweet, and Handel’s long lines in no way fazed her. A few more decibels would have been welcome, but she impressed. I hope that she will be rewarded with some further solo assignments.

William Shimell sang Hercules, strong of voice and character if not always able to produce every note distinctly. In “Aleides’ name in latest story”, the word “lustre” was often swallowed, becoming one syllable. In fact, enunciation was frequently poor. Perhaps I should rephrase that and say that the acoustics made it difficult to hear many of the words in arias. Katija Dragojevic came off worst. Her soft-grained mezzo, attractive in itself, did not have the edge to cut through the murk, so in all her arias only a handful of words could be distinguished. That’s a pity, for one could discern that she was finding the music congenial.

Ed Lyon, a young tenor who is also a responsive interpreter of songs, had more clarity. His voice is on the lean side, which helped it to emerge into the auditorium words intact. Like the others, he sang arias, runs and all, cleanly. I heard not one aspirate, from anyone.

Contributing greatly to the performance’s success were the members of Les Arts Florissants. The chorus (I counted 30) gave great pleasure, the singers’ light, fresh voices well balanced. It’s a really top-class unit, as is the orchestra, which played to the manner born. William Christie does this sort of thing so well, and did so again.



  • Repeated on 17 & 18 March at 7.15
  • Barbican

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