HERCULES by George Frideric Handel (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Runs to April 30, April 11, 15, 19, 24 and 30 at 7:30 pm, April 27 at 2 pm. $12-$332. 416-363-8231. See listing. Rating: NNNN
War leaves no one, on or off the battlefield, unscathed.
Director Peter Sellars's moving, contemporary staging of Handel's opera Hercules leaves the classical world to present instead an American general (Eric Owens), the strongest of his day, returning from the front suffering from PTSD.
We're on the outskirts of a Middle Eastern war, the chorus dressed in a combination of U.S. military garb and local gowns for the women. The Americans have brought their customs to this foreign battleground, including a barbecue and beer for a down-home celebration.
Hercules's arrival from the campaign, his last, with a foreign princess, Iole (Lucy Crowe), as booty and maybe as concubine fires the jealousy of his wife, Dejanira (Alice Coote), and upsets his friend, Lichas (David Daniels). Only his love-smitten son, Hyllus (Richard Croft), is happy to see Iole.
Handel's rich score fills out these five characters' relationships and strong emotions. As Sellars notes, the opera draws on Sophocles' Women Of Trachis; despite its title, the central figures are Dejanira, whose anger leads to more suffering, and the distraught Iole, pushed beyond endurance but eventually a source of compassion and forgiveness.
The last scene, a military funeral, is almost a coda to the heart of the drama that immediately precedes it.
The musicianship is world-class under conductor Harry Bicket, from the sweetness of Daniels's counter-tenor to Owens's rough-hewn sound as the shell-shocked, stolid warrior, unable to deal with emotion and unaware of his lapses in focus. Hyllus's ringingly heroic and softer romantic melodies are well delivered by Croft, though at times his diction could be clearer.
The women are remarkable. Coote brings a commanding presence and wide range of vocal dynamics to the pill-popping Dejanira, who's first fearful that her husband won't return from battle and then determined to win back his affection. Crowe is a revelation as Iole, singing her first aria as a subdued prisoner and later becoming a passionate yet tender figure who brings reconciliation to this troubled world. I can't imagine her role being done better.
Not every element works. Sellars gives the chorus (which sings remarkably, as always, under Sandra Horst's direction) a series of hand gestures to illustrate what they're saying.The device succeeds sometimes (the jealousy chorus that ends the first act) though is distracting at others.
But when Hyllus and Iole use similar movements in their second act duet, there's dramatic purpose: he, wooing her, begins them, then the two perform the gestures together and finally she does them on her own, a sign that she's being won over to his love.
Hercules is first-class Handel, given a thrilling, inventive staging by a fine cast and director.