Handel’s Hercules is an adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy Women of Trachis, the tale of how Hercules met his death at the unwitting hands of his wife Dejanira, herself tricked by the centaur Nessus many years earlier into keeping a fatal poison under the guise of a love-charm. Nessus, mortally wounded by Hercules when the centaur attempted to rape Dejanira, knew Hercules’ wandering eye all too well: he relied on Dejanira’s eventual desperation to save her marriage in order to revenge himself on the hero from the far side of the grave. Women of Trachis is an excoriating study of lust, anger and human jealousy: if you want to know it better, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Dianeira (memorably made into a BBC radio play with Joseph Fiennes as Hyllus) is a great place to begin. Unfortunately, for Hercules, Handel’s librettist Thomas Broughton decided to tidy up the hero’s character for the 18th century, turning him into a virtuous husband. Apart from producing an immediate structural flaw in the plot, instantly reducing the nobility and queenliness of Dejanira's actions as well as those of Hercules and Nessus, and being laughably comic from a classical point of view, this taming of Hercules neuters the work as a whole. The result is that the whole story is reduced to a paltry little marriage spat which goes wrong, instead of the multi-layered, morally complex vendetta-martyrdom Sophocles gives his hero.

Harry Bicket and The English Concert © Richard Haughton
Harry Bicket and The English Concert
© Richard Haughton

However, even as bludgeoned by Broughton, this story still inspired Handel to write some truly wonderful music, with magnificent choruses gleaming throughout this “musical drama”, as he termed it, although nothing could be further from Wagner’s idea of ‘music drama’ centuries later. In fact, I suspect Hercules is exactly the kind of work which would make Wagner chew the carpet in frustration. Presenting the work at the Barbican, The English Concert played beautifully throughout the evening, with glowing tone and expert phrasing from Harry Bicket, who conducted with his characteristic natural feel and forensic precision. Bicket was not beyond the occasional musical joke, too: as Dejanira sang of “Venus and her whining boy”, the strings slid sympathetically down their note in pretty imitation of a whine. The orchestral playing remained intelligent and sensitive throughout.

At its best, good choral music can feel like a collective act of will brightening up the world, and the Choir of the English Concert was in just such good voice. “Crown with festal pomp the day, be mirth extravagantly gay” saw Handel firing on all glorious cylinders, while “Wanton god of amorous fires” with its rapid, almost breathless litany of rushing notes, sounded truly innovative. Hercules was written at a time of great professional stress for Handel, after some flops and financial problems, but his writing here is serenely confident and creative. “Tyrants now no more shall dread” and “The world’s avenger is no more” were further excellent examples of his unstinting energy and vision, sung with rapturous beauty by the Choir, who could not have performed better.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the soloists. Each a skilled singer in their own right, the team did not seem to have gelled in the least, and everyone seemed to be performing in an entirely different production – in other words, as a lawyer might say, on a frolic of their own. Alice Coote's highly coloured, almost expressionistic approach to the role of Dejanira may have delighted her fans, but the eye-rolling, harrumphing and hair tossing left me cold, while theatrical grunts and growls did much to obscure an otherwise lovely voice. This was particularly the case with Coote's "Cease, ruler of the day to rise", whose magical beginnings ended in toe-curling hyperbole. However, the increasingly obvious physical effort behind her singing (and surprisingly uneven volume) led me to wonder whether Coote might in fact have been unwell.

Elizabeth Watts got off to a sketchy start as Iole, her early arias all rather harsh-edged, and while her singing happily improved over the course of the evening, her acting sadly did not. Watts made a beautiful job of "How blest the maid", and her "Jealousy" aria was also good; Watts was at her best in "My breast with tender pity swells", a classically beautiful Handel aria which came as a relief after the awkward tantrums of Coote's mad scene, and she also excelled in Iole's tentative love duet with Hyllus. However, perhaps tempted by Coote's thespian extravagances, she too overacted.

As Hyllus, by contrast, James Gilchrist seemed to have fixed on impassioned, characterised singing instead of acting, which would have been fine if his colleagues had stuck to that too, but amid all the hysterics on stage he seemed rather cold by comparison. Meanwhile, Matthew Rose seemed to have just decided to make Hercules imperturbably grumpy, rather than giving him any particular depth of character: I couldn't perceive any joviality or heroism, while his body language towards Dejanira was particularly illogical, unrelated to his character or his words. Ironically, Rose came to life at last in his death-by-fire aria, a swirling series of notes which painted an elegant sound picture of his final agonies. Rupert Enticknap was a rather po-faced herald Lichas, though he sang with musical charm.

It seems rather like, in the absence of a director to stand back and view the whole, everyone made their own sincere attempts to give their characters life: but the resulting hotpotch of approaches made for an ever more disjointed, and profoundly unconvincing evening. The perfect unity and power of the English Concert's orchestra and choir only made the soloists seem more alone in their quests for meaning, leaving the production feeling lumpy and irrelevant.