Opera Reviews
25 February 2024
Untitled Document

The 2023 festival gets off to a good start with Hercules

by Catriona Graham

Handel: Hercules
International Handel Festival Göttingen
18 May 2023

Revenge, the cliché maintains, is best served cold, in which case, Nessus’ revenge on Hercules has been at the back of the fridge a long time.

The Göttingen International Handel Festival 2023 gets off to a good start with the musical drama Hercules. Only, as is so often the case, it is less about him than her, Dejanira, his wife, who is suffering from substantial insecurities and is the means to Nessus’ ultimate revenge.

We first meet Dejanira whingeing about wanting Hercules home; when he arrives with the princess captured from the territory and people he has obliterated, Dejanira convinces herself that the obliteration was only to capture the princess. Well, okay …

This gives Vivica Genaux ample scope for emoting though some fiendish runs. Conductor George Petrou does not hold back, taking the oratorio at a cracking pace, making these runs even more fiendish. And then there is her air ‘Resign thy club and lion’s spoils’ which is a tongue-twister – 'For the glittering sword and shield the spindle and the distaff wield' – impressively  negotiated. Yet, in her slower air ‘Cease, ruler of the day, to rise’ the sound of her voice and of the FestspielOrchester Göttingen can be enjoyed.

Trying – and failing - to temper this outpouring of angst with some commonsense is the messenger Lichas, sung by Lena Sutor-Wernich. Her alto voice is big, and rich as a Christmas cake, and how low can she go, still with full resonance. She is the still centre of the narrative, knowing both sides of the story, but unable to get through to Dejanira.

In contrast, Iole, the captive princess, has plenty of reasons to loathe Hercules and tells Dejanira so, to no avail. Her injured innocence is conveyed by Anna Dennis with ringing, bell-like clarity.

Hercules is sung by Andreas Wolf – an enormous voice with tremendous rounded sound. Most of his music portrays his death agonies, and we are in no doubt that they are agonies and his blood is, in fact, boiling.

As Hyllus, the son of Hercules and Dejanira, Nick Pritchard has the thankless task of being the go-between, as well as falling for the initially uninterested Iole – see her earlier response to Dejanira’s accusation that she is Hercules’ lover.

The NDR Vokalensemble (chorus master Klaas-Jan de Groot) provides the chorus and soloists for the small parts. Their third act chorus ‘Tyrants now no more shall dread’ has some particularly nice chorus work, and ‘Jealousy! Infernal pest’ has a good contrast between the broad strokes in the lower registers of the orchestra and the soft, high entry of the voices.

This performance cuts the scene in which Dejanira instructs Lichas to give Hercules the garment ‘dipped in Nessus’ blood’ so we go immediately to Dejanira playing nice with Iole. She realises her horrible mistake – even then, it’s still all me-me-me and not a thought about the agony of the husband she purported to love. Iole having accepted the inevitable, the duet with Hyllus works well, with the two voices well-matched.

Text © Catriona Graham
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