A valuable opportunity to see and hear Handel’s Hercules at Berlin’s Komische Oper

GermanyGermany Handel, Hercules: Soloists, Choral soloists (director: David Cavelius) and Orchestra of the Komische Oper / David Bates (conductor). Komische Oper, Berlin, 3.3.2024. (MB)

Paula Murrihy (centre, Dejanira) © Monika Rittershaus

Director – Barrie Kosky
Designs – Katrin Lea Tag
Dramaturgy – Zsolt Horpácsy, Johanna Wall
Lighting – Joachim Klein
Assistant director – Tobias Ribitzki

Hercules – Brandon Cedel
Dejanira – Paula Murrihy
Iole – Penny Sofroniadou
Hyllus – Caspar Singh
Lichas – Susan Zarrabi
Priest of Jupiter – Noam Heinz
Choral soloists – Martin Fehr, Taiki Miyashita

Handel’s ‘musical drama’ – an interesting term, though we can sometimes make too much of such things – Hercules has never proved especially popular. The composer’s public at the time and for a long while after tended to prefer his Biblical oratorios. Since the revival and, latterly, the craze for his Italian opere serie, they have ruled the roost. Semele, another ‘musical drama’, ‘after the manner of an oratorio’, has fared better since its modern stage revival in Cambridge in 1925. Handel never intended it to be staged, though the librettist (William Congreve) and original composer (John Eccles) had. It perhaps comes closest to Hercules, whose first staging was also in 1925 – the very beginning of the modern Handel revival – though in Münster. Whilst perhaps not the most compelling, dramatically, of all Handel’s works, Hercules, to a libretto by the Anglican clergyman Thomas Broughton, is certainly not the least either. This new production from Berlin’s Komische Oper affords a valuable opportunity, certain shortcomings notwithstanding, for news audience to see and hear it for themselves — many doubtless for the first time, the present writer included.

In a programme interview, Barrie Kosky tells how and why he has long found Handel’s oratorios, to which he reasonably assimilates Hercules, more compelling than his operas. Me too, though we seem to stand nowadays in a minority. One question presented by staging the oratorios (broadly considered), though, relates to how to treat the chorus. Its dual role in participation and commentary dates back to Attic tragedy, of course, as well as holding an obvious point in common with Bach’s Passions. There remains the question of how to stage this, especially when the chorus is being asked to sing some notably difficult music conceived for singers standing with their scores rather than darting around the stage. (Insofar as the Italian operas have ‘choruses’ at all, the music is far simpler, and in general we might consider them simply to be the cast coming together.) One needs an excellent chorus, of course, which was certainly the case here. Its singers and their director, David Cavelius, deserve much praise; audience appreciation was rightly enthusiastic on the opening night. Kosky involved them directly in the action where required, including a disturbing scene of largely implicit violence when Iole is brought home (for Hercules, not for her) as spoils of war. There is also mesmerising choreography for the reflective role in which singing and movement combine to evoke and perhaps even provoke the deadly jealousy forming in Dejanira’s fevered imagination.

Barrie Kosky’s Hercules for Berlin’s Komische Oper © Monika Rittershaus

For, as Kosky points out, Handel focuses everything not on Hercules but on his wife, Dejanira. ‘Everyone is constantly talking about Hercules,’ as is typical for a hero, or an idea of a hero, ‘but all one sees is one theme – and that is jealousy, which the chorus also sings about at a central point. What is jealousy, what does jealousy do, what is fantasy, what is projection, what is reality? Dejanira spins herself through jealousy into madness,’ in her obsessional belief, quite unfounded, that her husband has deserted her for the foreign princess Iole. Kosky’s suggestion that Broughton probably read Othello strikes me as eminently plausible, and certainly makes its way in here, with a good touch too of Ovid. This unfolds in an unsparing visual environment, situated at the dramatic trisection of antiquity, its eighteenth-century revisitation, and our twenty-first-century revisitation of both. Glaring light and whiteness impart a sense of nowhere to hide. We may not wish to watch at times, but we must — just like those taking part. Katrin Lea Tag’s designs here play a crucial role; indeed, one cannot imagine the action without them. A statue of Hercules, ever present, make Kosky’s point about constant reference when the drama is not really ‘about’ Hercules at all.

Paula Murrihy’s performance as Dejanira must be accounted a striking success. She has much to do and not only did Murrihy do it very well indeed, but functioned, as Dejanira must, as the dramatic lynchpin. As Hercules, Brandon Cedel has a somewhat thankless part, but presented it with conviction and due collegiality, doing just what was required of him to have the apparently strange focus of the drama work. Kosky has an inventive solution, which tightens the bonds of family loyalty further, to the question of the role of the messenger Lichas. Handel made it an oddly large role; that is, oddly, until one knows that it was on account of the popularity of its creator Susanna Cibber. For revivals, it was cut. Kosky elects to make the herald, always sung by a woman, Hercules’s younger sister. It works well, I think, and helps make sense of something that can otherwise seem a little odd. Susan Zarrabi’s heavily accented performance might have been a little much for some English speakers, but it was certainly animated and dramatically committed; we should remind ourselves that German- and Italian-speakers face similar distractions frequently. Penny Sofroniadou’s Iole was beautifully, sparklingly sung, with just as keen an eye and ear for drama, her initial, well-nigh regal disdain for Hyllus, Hercules’s son, duly wounding. Caspar Singh offered a subtle, often moving performance of that difficult role: very much in his father’s shadow, his mother’s too, in need of space to become his own person. The small role of the Priest of Jupiter was well taken by Noam Heinz, from whom I shall likewise be keen to hear more.

The one significant drawback for me was David Bates’s direction of the orchestra. Clearly intent on making it sound as little like a modern orchestra as possible – in which case, why use one? – Bates often sounded as if he were presenting a caricature of rebarbative ‘early musicking’. Not only was there no longer line; there were barely orchestral phrases at all, which made for a peculiar contrast with such excellent singing. If it was, alas, too much to hope for even the slightest manifestation of string vibrato. The orchestra doubtless did as it was asked, but lunging extremes of tempo only highlighted the strange assumptions underlying Bates’s performance. Quite how we have backed ourselves into a corner where all manner of explorations are permitted on stage, yet a single, highly questionable idea of ‘correctness’ (or otherwise) in instrumental performance is all that can be allowed, I really do not know. One can only hope that, someday, wiser, more humane counsels will prevail. There are certainly far more alluring Handel performances on period instruments, let alone the all too rare occasions when more properly ‘modern’ readings are permitted.

It would doubtless be an exaggeration to describe Hercules as an ‘Anglican work’, but it chimes well enough with a broadly Christian yet latitudinarian outlook. If part of the reason for the work’s ‘failure’ – it received only two performances in its initial run at the Haymarket – was, as has been claimed, its lack of moral and spiritual uplift, then it is tempting to conclude the audience was not paying as much attention as it might. From a modern standpoint, it might all seem a bit clean, the deus ex machina in need of questioning or undercutting. Kosky does not opt to do so too overtly, letting the work speak largely for itself. Yet in continuing his focus on Dejanira, for whom this is certainly not a happy ending, one can continue, as it were, to hear her pain, renewed and intensified by the sounds of rejoicing that surround her.

Mark Berry

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