Ancient Greek superheroes – irresistible. Half god, half man, incredible deeds leave Perseus, Theseus, and of course Hercules enough to rival Superman, Spiderman, and The Incredible Hulk. Small wonder then why these demigods and precursor of the modern comic book superhero have captivated the hearts and minds of many of the world’s greatest writers, dramatists and composers. During the Baroque Era classical mythology served as a favorite subject in the world of opera, with such compositional giants from Lully to Handel penning the scores to librettos based on famous myths. For this year’s Baroque opera the Lyric Opera of Chicago decided to showcase and premiere Handel’s Hercules, the beloved tale of a demigod with mammoth strength who conquered all odds, only to be defeated indirectly via a deceased foe. Originally deemed a flop at its 1745 premiere, the work has since experienced serious revival and incorporation into the mainstream opera repertoire.

Lyric Opera of Chicago © Dan Rest
Lyric Opera of Chicago
© Dan Rest

In this new production renowned opera producer Peter Sellars took this ancient story to a whole new dimension by re-setting the tale in modern-day America with Hercules as an Iraq/Afghanistan veteran who is traumatized by his horrific memories. Hence, it is these memories – rather than infatuation with the lovely Princess Iola as designated in Handel’s original intentions – which serve as the primary reason why Hercules is callous towards his dejected wife, Dejanira. In the beginning when I initially learned of these modern modifications, I was somewhat leery, but as it turned out unnecessarily so. Ancient Greek and modern American elements constantly intermixed, creating a smooth transition for the audience between the two worlds. While the past was most certainly visible in the forms of highly colorful, toga-like dresses for the female characters and the set itself, the present was also portrayed in the forms of machine guns, camouflage uniforms, an American flag and even a barbeque grill. While these modern influences and anachronisms did become distracting at times, they were subtle enough such that the original Ancient Greek ambience was not obscured in any way and facilitated in fashioning the opera and making it more relatable to a modern audience. The set – solely several broken-off Greek columns which suggest a ruined edifice and several large, gray faux rocks – definitely communicated to the audience that the story was taking place in Ancient Greece, while the lighting – shown through fake silver stars with various colors corresponding with the present mood – added the finishing touches to the cosmetic aspect of the production.

Despite the fact that this production was performed by a modern opera company with modern instruments, historical interpretation and accuracy was omnipresent and accurately executed at all times with both the singers and orchestra members. Under the direction of English Consort director and guest director Harry Bicket, the Lyric orchestra rendered a historically accurate rendition of Handel’s delightful and captivating music, complete with delicate, distinct articulation, a light sound mimicking those of genuine period instruments, and even a fabulous basso continuo section with harpsichord, organ, and theorbo. In turn, the singers – all Baroque opera superstars – faithfully adhered to the conventions of historically informed performance with the expressive lightness, agility, and minimal vibrato save for its usage as an ornament. Masterfully-executed vocal ornamentation was present, delicately and tastefully elaborating on the repeats of Handel's hallowed strains. Most importantly, the key Baroque concept of the “Doctrine of the Affections” – that each piece has a specific “passion” (or mood) and that the performers must place themselves in that specific passion to in turn move the audience – was heeded at all times throughout the performance. Vivid emotions were displayed, both in the singing and especially the singers’ facial expressions. Anger, anguish, affection, and tenderness were only a handful of the countless emotions present. In the same line, Baroque gestures were elegantly and tastefully executed, drawing further attention the individual emotions of each character. For the finishing touches, the Lyric chorus provided the tour de force needed for a classical Greek chorus so characteristic of classical drama and Baroque opera, complete with colorful costumes composed of every spectral color possible.

The casting for this production served as its crowning achievement. Eric Owens proved the ultimate Hercules – stalwart, pompous, and muscular with a booming and commanding bass voice fit for a mighty superhero and outstanding, clean coloratura runs that would have impressed Handel himself. Despite his operatic soul-mate, English mezzo-soprano Alice Coote battling a cold, she managed to muster up all her strength, courageously and masterfully delivering an amazing vocal job as Dejanira considering her unfortunate circumstances. As Hyllas, Hercules’ devoted son, tenor Richard Croft got off to a weak start vocally, but gradually improved over the course of the opera, peaking stellarly in the final scenes in which Hyllas discovers true love. Countertenor David Daniels, while charming in his acting, failed to capture the essence of the music vocally; his voice lacked the fire and agility needed of his demanding role. The laurels, however, undoubtedly go to rising star British lyric soprano Lucy Crowe. A true Baroque soprano, Crowe was the ultimate Iola, possessing a childlike innocence and heartfelt compassion as demanded by her character’s gentle nature. Crowe undoubtedly stole the show with her pure, agile, and crystal-clear voice, brilliant acting and flawless coloratura runs, which drew several shouts of “Brava!” from enthusiastic audience members following her completion of each aria.

The only caveat to this thrilling and highly worthwhile production was the slight story modification, shifting the cause of Hercules’ lack of romance from infatuation with a conquered woman to postwar trauma syndrome. For me, adding this extra psychological dimension detracted from Handel’s original intentions; I somehow felt that it turned the opera into more of an indirect commentary on current American political affairs rather than simply re-telling a classic Greek myth as Handel intended. Although classical music – including opera – is often penned to make a political statement on the behalf of its composer, I do not think that Handel’s Hercules was intended to be one of these numbers, nor was postwar trauma syndrome a particular concern of the time.

Indeed, as Sellars sought to state when creating this production, the themes contained within its lovely musical lines and story are just as pertinent in the modern world as they were in Handel’s times – thus demonstrating the immortality and universal appeal of Greek mythology. Indeed, as I applauded during curtain call, I was more inspired than ever on how to refine my own Baroque singing, am now less leery of modernization of Baroque opera, and am looking very forward to attending the Lyric’s future productions of similar operas.

****1