Peter Sellars' production of Handel's Hercules humanizes a well-known mythological figure, rendering his world a tragically familiar one filled with damaged people dealing with the aftermath of war. Based on the ancient Greek play Women of Trachis by Sophocles and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the work, originally presented in 1745 as a three-act musical drama, revolves around the hero Hercules returning from war. Much like his last Canadian Opera Company effort with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in early 2013, Sellars has modernized an old tale, placing it in a familiar, if timeless, setting.

Hercules © Michael Cooper
Hercules
© Michael Cooper

The production, a collaboration with Lyric Opera of Chicago, treats its titular hero as a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, embracing contemporary corollaries and using familiar elements straight out of news headlines. Hercules (Eric Owens) comes home after a military expedition, where his wife Dejanira (Alice Coote) has been praying for his return. The beautiful Iole (Lucy Crowe), Princess of the conquered land Oechalia, is brought back as a kind of sexual prize, and is here presented in an orange jumpsuit that recalls Abu-Ghraib. She delivers her first aria wearing a black hood over her head; we only see her face when Hercules' son Hyllus (Richard Croft) tentatively removes it, seeing a damaged woman whose trauma touches him on profound levels.

This is a world where everyone is damaged, something Sellars emphasizes with a combination of great singing, solid acting, and thoughtful theatrical elements. Dunya Ramicova’s bright costuming serves to underline important contrasts. There is a notable rift between domestic and military worlds; the way these worlds mix and mingle during the choruses, with sharp, angular choreography recalling a pared-down integration of Martha Graham and La La La Human Steps. It’s as if the sensual elements in this world are being twisted into something foreign, damaged, and frightening. The backdrop of James F. Ingalls’ multi-colored lights flash and flicker as Hercules (referred to by his other name, Alcides) is dying, poisoned by a garment his wife had coated with what she believed to be a love potion. The hero’s intense pain – his burning flesh – is something the audience experiences via the use of alternating orange and yellow lights beamed directly from the stage. Set designer George Tsypin’s circle of burning embers mid-stage take on added significance as Dejanira realizes her role in her husband's death, with visuals reflecting a descent into her own personal Hades. The opera's final scene, with Dejanira shaking hands with soldiers as civilians stand silently looking on, has a tone of forgiveness weighted heavily by loss, regret, and a keen sense of dissolution. An immense flag-dragged coffin (an American flag, as if Sellars wants to drive home the contemporary) is wheeled slowly offstage, its journey miniscule, its impact permanent.

Alice Coote and Eric Owens © Michael Cooper
Alice Coote and Eric Owens
© Michael Cooper

Under Harry Bicket’s superb conducting, Handel’s score becomes less a series of fussy arias and recitatives than a fully realized cohesive drama, and a fully felt exploration of the human condition as experienced through war. The repetition of phrases within the da capo structure is a reflection of the obsessive, damaged psychology of war veterans and their loved ones. Multiple notes are confidently sung across single syllables; this melisma, as it's called, isn't merely audio embroidery, but reflects the roiling mental states of each character. Humanistic themes bloom out of the mythological framework, with every note revealing psychology in a way that invokes varying shades of pity, bewilderment, frustration, horror – things the characters themselves experience, and through them, the audience.

The opera’s drama is driven home by a fine cast who prove themselves solid actors as well as singers. American bass-baritone Eric Owens exudes both sadness and danger; his silence is symptomatic of his trauma, intimately connected with his experience of war. Alice Coote, as his confused, frustrated wife, moves between shrewishness, bewilderment, self-blame, and blackest despair; her mad scene is a perfectly-pitched expression of loss, anger, and guilt, and her fluid mezzo-soprano moves smoothly between the piece’s high and low registers. As the family friend Lichas, countertenor David Daniels gives a stunning performance, his second act aria, in which he reveals the fate of the hero, shot through with shock. Tenor Richard Croft offers a deeply human Hyllus, who is here given arm crutches, rendering his physical vulnerability on par with his emotional sensitivity. His scenes with Lucy Crowe (as Iole) are particularly heartbreaking; Crowe's piercing soprano offering a shattering beauty amidst the chaos of the world Sellars presents.

We are drawn to Hercules’ painful world of survival and hardship, not through virtue of suffering, but through the beauty of art. Handel’s entrancing, timeless score invites us to explore this world, and to open our hearts to fallen heroes. There is hope in beauty, and beauty in hope; finding both amidst horror is the great challenge of Handel’s age, and our own.