G P Padillo | Portland, ME United States | 02/21/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is an extraordinary opportunity to see a (fairly) rarely performed musical drama of Handel - a work debated as both opera and oratorio (depending on whos doing the arguing). It is a first rate performance and should engage the passions, intelligence and emotions of anyone viewing it, from the very beginning. The first moment that truly wrecked me was the chorus "O filial piety, courageous love" where the populace comfort, then ready Hyllus for his journey. It was an absolutely perfect moment and Toby Spence's silent, moving reactions to the people was amazing. Then we see DiDonato's Dejanira, so mournful and disconsolate it was heartbreaking to watch as she desperately hangs onto her son's shirt, seizing his arm - as he takes leave of her - a profoundly moving stage picture wed to music of exquisite and delicate beauty.
I couldn't help but share in the joy and excitement during the announcement of Hercules' return and the march preceding his arrival. Then Iole's stunning lament "Peaceful rest, dear parent shade" was sung with such clean line and simplicity by Ingela Bohlin that I had to stop the disc and repeat it. Here again, Bondy's staging captures every element of the music and drama and the camera follows its flow in its own musical direction - simply amazing.
The first act ends with one of Handel's most unusual choruses - "Crown with festal pomp the day." The first time I heard this I wondered if it was really composed by Handel or inserted years later, so modern does it sound. Indeed, this score is one of Handel's most unusual, where there is the "typical" Handelian sound, much of it seems to look forward to where music was "going" (the best composers often have this trait). In fact most of the choruses (especially with the thrilling effects Christie draws from the chorus - as in "Wanton god of am'rous fires! Sheesh!).
If at the beginning I felt Toby Spence not as intense as Croft in the recent CD recording, the younger tenor certainly pulled me strongly into his camp with From celestial seats descending - one of the most beautiful arias (and beautifully performed) in this entire work. His performance from hereon for me took on remarkable depth of character and he was nothing if not heartwrenching.
As good - or wonderful as everyone is, the performance of the night goes to Miss DiDonato. She continues to impress me with everything she does. I first heard her live in newer works, such as Dead Man Walking and Little Women, and since have been wowed by her performances of everything else, especially Rossini. Her performance here equals in intensity (of an entirely different sort) that of her Sister Helen in Dead Man. Her range of physical gestures and natural ability in acting is tremendous.
Handel's work in recitative is nothing less than astonishing throughout here, and the cast performs them (particularly DiDonato) with startling theatricality and power.
There are too many highlights to mention, but I'm grateful to have been turned on to this performance - I know I'll probably be playing it for the rest of the week, trying to absorb it all. In only his second baroque work Bondy has, joined Peter Sellars in his "Theodora" staging in creating viable, theatrically compelling and visually exciting Handel operas out of works hitherto primarily known as "oratorios" and not opera, showing the wealth of musical drama Handel could wring from a story.
How blessed we are to live in an era of directors capable of taking what previously had been wrongfully assumed to be lovely if dull oratorios and breathing into them the drama we knew always existed in these works all long. This Hercules, like the recent Theodora, show that, in the right hands Handel's music dramas can be every bit as potent as Shakespeare. Bravos all around to all involved in this wonderful performance. This is one of the finest DVD performances released in 2004 - or any year! "
A HERCULES for the Ages
David | North Carolina, USA | 01/27/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have an extensive opera on DVD collection, and this production of HERCULES ranks right up there with the very best. And yes, this is an opera and not an oratorio. Handel himself referred to it as a "musical drama" and after watching this production you'll agree that it's an operatic masterpiece of supreme genius.
There is not a weak link in the cast. Not only is the singing first-rate, but so is the acting. And the icing on the cake is that all the singers actually look the part of the character they are playing. Joyce DiDonato creates an unforgettable Dejanira, and while the opera is named after her more famous husband, its main focus is on her.
If you are not familiar with Handel's operas, this HERCULES DVD would be an ideal place to start. It's one of Handel's greatest works, and we get an intensely dramatic performance from the cast and chorus with inspired conducting from William Christie. The plot is easy to follow: Dejanira is jealous of the beautiful Iole, believing that Hercules is enamored of her. Dejanira's growing jealousy will have grave consequences for her--and for Hercules--leading to one of the most intense and deeply-moving mad scenes in all of opera.
This is also one of the very few operas from the 18th-century in which we witness the title character die a horrible death on stage; the only other that I can think of is Mozart's Don Giovanni, who gets dragged into hell. Handel's music in this opera is powerful and it very much reflects the feelings of the characters. It's quite modern in the way Handel's music so intimately reveals the mental state of the characters. By by act three the psychological time bomb finally explodes with an incredible force that is truly not forgotten.
This is truly a masterpiece on DVD, and I would uge anyone remotely interested in this work to purchase it quickly, while it's still available. It has an expensive price tag, but it's absolutely worth every penny ! Unfortunately, this DVD already seems difficult to find, and it may go out of print soon. That is a great shame, as this is outstanding production of HERCULES, and beyond that, it is one of the very best operas ever put onto a DVD."
DiDonato is Triumphant!
Bruce Varner | Chicago area, USA | 10/24/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Whether "Hercules" is opera or oratorio is truly academic. What matters most is that this is a top-shelf DVD that features spectacular performances. I highly recommend this DVD to lovers of opera, oratorio, or Baroque music in general.
Before discussing the positives, of which there were many, I only have one bone to pick with this production. That issue is the scene where Hyllus, well sung by tenor Toby Spence, is preparing to leave his mother Dejanira to search for his father Hercules. Given the gravity and danger of the trek, Spence seemed somewhat casual about the whole thing. At one point, he pulled out a huge fold-out map, and was showing Dejanira where he would go by making his fingers walk over the map. It was also clear he had no idea where on the map he was pointing. In acting-speak, there was no intention in his movement. He was then aided in his packing for the journey by the chorus, who brought him a backpack, thermos, etc. The lack of gravity of the staging, combined with Spence's youthful looks, made the whole scene look like he was off to summer camp. In fact, the only character on stage who seemed to grasp the seriousness of this event was Dejanira.
None of the reviews I read gave enough credit to the fantastic musicians of Les Arts Florissants. Maybe I'm sensitive to this because I'm a violinist, but nonetheless, the playing is wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the prelude to Act III with its jagged rythms and beautiful violin solos.
The chorus is also top notch. The balance between the voices was perfect, and the chorus played their role as narrator and moral arbiter with surety.
The casting was brilliant, starting with Malena Ernman as Lichas. Ms. Ernman is blonde, buff, beautiful, and though billed as an alto, she is an honest-to-goodness contralto. Her low register will blow you away.
I loved Ingela Bohlin as Iole, the pretty young thing that Hercules brings back following his Act I triumph. Ms. Bohlin looks like a movie star, and has a gorgeous leggiero soprano voice to match. The weight of her voice was a perfect balance with the other women in the cast. Her acting was credible and honest.
William Shimell was a virile yet vulnerable Hercules. His full baritone was perfect for the heroic part. Toby Spence, despite the one scene, is a wonderful tenor and sings the difficult role of Hyllus with flair and confidence.
The star of the evening, as she most often is, was Joyce DiDonato as Dejanira. She showed it all. Her Act I arias (or are they airs?), where she is pining away for her absent husband will pull at your heart strings. Her rock solid technique allows her the option of ethereal, floating pianos and pianissimos. Her jealousy scene with Iole was creepy, and foreshadowed the madness to come. The mad scene in Act III was brilliant and risky. Other critics have said it, and it is true: Joyce DiDonato is a fearless singer. She is truly one of the greatest mezzos of our day. In addition to being a singer who can do it all, she commits to her character and choices, and gives the audience all she has.
Not only would I recommend you buy this DVD, I might recommend that you spend the extra money for quick shipping. I'm sure you will enjoy it, and I look forward to watching my copy many more times.
Expert Cast Lends Passion to a Relentlessly Dark Staging of
Ed Uyeshima | San Francisco, CA USA | 01/13/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Luc Bondy's decidedly Spartan approach to one of Handel's more intriguing and epic oratorios may disappoint some Baroque purists, but there is no stopping the dramatic resonance of the piece. "Hercules" examines the power of jealousy and its fatalistic ramifications using the last hours of the mythic hero's life as the central focus of the story. Wrapped in the composer's wondrous, mood-shifting music for well over three hours, the 2004 Festival International d'Art Lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence production, recorded at Paris' Palais Garnier, is marked by an extremely theatrical sense of character-driven drama. TV director Vincent Bataillon captures this volatility fully on the 2006 two-disc DVD set and the performance itself benefits significantly from a solid cast lending their voices to some of the composer's most breathtaking arias. Despite its tepid London debut in 1744, the oratorio has understandably raised its standing among Baroque aficionados to become one of Handel's most respected works.
Baritone William Shimell plays the title role in a rather brutish monotone that sometimes overshadows his character's aching vulnerability, even though his singing is mainly superb. At certain moments, such as his big air in Act II, "Alcides' name in latest story", he reveals an innate ability to convey not only his character's imminent fate but also a strong heroic sense. Regardless of the title, the oratorio is dominated by Hercules' distraught wife Dejanira, and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato runs with the opportunity with a feverish performance that takes advantage of her theatrical vibrancy and vocal agility. Her climactic scene of madness, showcased in the air, "Where shall I fly?", perfectly reflects DiDonato's total commitment to the role. As Hyllus, tenor Toby Spence is marginally less impressive in capturing his young character's callow feelings toward his father's young captive, Iole, but he still manages to conquer the most prominent of the virtuoso runs in his many arias with great dexterity. With unsullied purity, soprano Ingela Bohlin affectingly sings Iole, the object of Dejanira's jealousy, while in a trouser role, mezzo-soprano Malena Ernman is able to bring out a palpable masculinity in the smallish role of Lichas the Herald.
Another powerful asset to this production is the masterful baton of Baroque specialist William Christie, who vividly leads the period instrument orchestra of Les Arts Florissants. Yet, with the combined power of the performers and musicians, including a powerfully diverse chorale, the overall gray-toned darkness of the production becomes wearing over its marathon run. Even in the jubilation of the final chorus celebrating the marriage of Hyllus and Iole, there is a pervasive somber note sounded by the melancholy sets. Compared to Peter Sellars' legendary 1996 rethinking of Handel's "Theodora" (also on DVD) in a modern-day political setting, this staging does not take as many artistic risks in plumbing the emotional depths of this classic work. Granted, "Hercules" is not as powerful an oratorio, but I just wish Bondy trusted a little more variation in his vision. For all that, this is still a most worthwhile record of the composer's underappreciated work."
Opera? Oratorio? Greek Tragedy?
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 07/16/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The late Renaissance humanists who self-consciously "invented" opera had it in mind that they were re-birthing classical Greek drama. Hence the development of recitativo and chorus. Hence also the curious device of having a singer, often a minor character, report the most significant moments in the drama as "off-stage" actions. By the middle of the 17th C, however, such humanist purism had been forgotten; action had taken center stage, and the da capo aria had re-established the primacy of music over drama and words.
Handel wrote his great Italian Baroque operas chiefly early in his career. Then, when the finances of opera productions in England faltered, he reworked much of his earlier Italian cantata music into the form for which he is most famous, the English-language oratorio, a form which features close attention to text, use of a chorus as a commentary on the textual narrative, and almost exclusively "reported" drama, often indirect in that one 'character' reports the sense of another. A third-person narrative, if you will.
Hercules was written as an oratorio, not an opera. With a sure sense of history, director Luc Bondy has realized the deep affinities between this oratorio and the dramas of Sophocles, thus belatedly achieving the aims of the 16th C humanists. This Hercules is as close to a Greek drama as any stage-effort of our times, and as such it's a powerful piece of moral theater. I find it perplexing that the man who wrote the achingly sincerely pious Messiah also wrote a work that is utterly pre-Christian in its moral content. Hercules is a pagan drama through and through.
Seen as a Greek drama, the bare stage and indifference to costuming of this production are totally appropriate. The only further step toward Attic simplicity would have been to put the cast in masks. (Frankly, I'm glad that step wasn't taken.)
For a modern audience, of course, it's the music that justifies the production, and this is some of Handel's finest music in his later style, less embellished than his Italian cantatas but more intense in its musical rhetoric. The five principals are all gifted with mighty vocal instruments - beautiful voices - and sing every passage with sure technique. William Shimell as Hercules and Joyce diDonato carry the dramatic load effectively, while Malena Ernman, as the attendant Lichas, nearly steals the musical show with her superb, athletic contralto. Her aria describing the suffering of Hercules, after he dons the fatal shirt stained with the blood of Nissa, is the most spell-binding moment of the oratorio.
Conductor William Christie is surely the luckiest man in the world - the happiest in his occupation - as revealed by the glimpses we get of him leading his Arts Florissants orchestra and chorus. There he stands, smiling approval, looking exactly like a benign sea-turtle in a Pixar spectacular. Every performance of Baroque opera, on stage or on DVD, that I've heard under his baton has been stunningly good. Les Arts Florissants plays this flamboyant score flawlessly; listeners will be "blown away" (cath the pun?) by the elegant horns and oboes. Bassoonist Claude Wassmer does a nice job also, if I may say so.
Inventive, insightful, thrilling - a first-rate piece of work!"