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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL: Hercules
Handel composed Hercules for his 1744-45 oratorio season as the secular foil to one of his most ambitious sacred dramas, Belshazzar, hoping to repeat the success of the previous season’s Samson/Semele pairing. Like Semele, Hercules, which Handel called ‘A Musical Drama’, is an English opera in all but name and shares its theme of the destructive power of sexual jealousy. Handel’s music is of outstanding quality and the commanding figure of Dejanira – rapturous in her love for her returning hero, distraught at his imagined dalliance with Iöle, eventually mad with despair at the enormity of her misguided actions – is one of his most powerfully drawn female rôles.
By David Denton
Handel’s Hercules contained some of his finest dramatic writing, though in his lifetime it was an unqualified failure.
We tend to look back on Handel as having enjoyed a distinguished life as an English composer following his arrival in London, but closer inspection reveals a life littered with downfalls. Hercules was intended to be one of the highlights of a season Handel had booked at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket in 1744, but for a number of reasons it was a fiasco on the opening night and the second performance failed to draw an audience. It was such a disaster that Handel cancelled the rest of the Haymarket season. Undeterred he scheduled three performances seven years later in 1752, but again it again failed to please anyone. At almost three hours it is a grossly overblown score, with so much padding that any sensible composer would have hacked it out before its revival. Strangely the conductor of this new recording, Joachim Carlos Martini, decides to concentrate on the lyrical moments allowing the dramatic ones will look after themselves. Though we have not the slightest idea of the vocal style of the period, he brings an element of period authenticity with the help of the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra. Vocally he has some reliable singers: Franz Vitzthum’s sweet-toned countertenor is heard to good effect as Lichas, with a bright and young voice from Gerlinde Samann as Iole, her handling of the demanding florid writing in such arias as Ah! Think what ills the jealous prove showing commendable virtuosity. The much experienced Peter Kooij makes a resolute Hercules, but the downside is the use of a largely German cast for an English language work. Much of the time they could be singing in any language, the problem compounded by a lack of words in the accompanying booklet. The Junge Kantorei perform with their usual enthusiasm, and the recording engineers have achieved very good balance between singers and instruments. Not ideal, but as a rarity and at super-budget price it is well worth hearing.
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Hercules - A Musical Drama
Words by Thomas Broughton
Dejanira, wife of Hercules – Nicola Wemyss, Mezzo-Soprano
Iöle, an Oechalian princess – Gerlinde Sämann, Soprano
Lichas, a herald – Franz Vitzthum, Countertenor
Hyllus, son of Hercules – Knut Schoch, Tenor
Hercules / Priest of Jupiter – Peter Kooij, Bass
First Oechalian – Liselotte Kühn, Soprano
First Trachinian – Franz Schneider, Bass
Junge Kantorei • Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra • Joachim Carlos Martini, Conductor
Georg Friedrich Händel, later more generally known under the English forms of the name that he assumed in London, George Frideric Handel, was born in Halle in 1685, the son of a successful barber-surgeon and his much younger, second wife. His father opposed his son’s early musical ambitions and after his father’s death Handel duly entered the University in Halle in 1702 as a student of law, as his father had insisted. He was able to seize the chance of employment as organist at the Calvinist Cathedral the following month, holding the position for a year, until his departure for Hamburg, to work there at the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, contributing in the latter capacity to the Italian operatic repertoire of the house. At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, he travelled, in 1706, to Italy, where he won considerable success during the next four years. Connections he had made in Venice, brought appointment in 1710 as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. From here he was granted immediate leave to fulfil a commission in London.
Handel’s first opera for London was Rinaldo, with which he won general acclaim, and after little over a year in Hanover, he returned to England. It was here that he now established himself as a composer of Italian opera and of other forms of vocal and instrumental music, for which there was an eager audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musical life of the English capital. His involvement with Italian opera as a composer and organizer continued, eventually under the royal patronage of George I, Elector of Hanover, who had succeeded to the English throne in 1715, on the death of Queen Anne, but by 1733, with the establishment of a rival opera company under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, there were obvious commercial difficulties.
While Handel’s work in Italian opera continued, with a final opera to be staged in 1741, he increasingly turned his attention to a new English form, that of the oratorio. This had certain very practical advantages, in language, lack of the need for expensive spectacle and the increasing employment of native singers. The content of oratorios appealed to English Protestant susceptibilities, providing a winning synthesis of religion and entertainment, and offering no offence to those who had found operatic conventions ridiculous in a city with strong pre-existent dramatic traditions. Handel’s first English oratorio, in 1732, was Esther, with a libretto based on Racine, followed, in 1733, by the biblical Deborah in March and in July Athalia, with a libretto by Samuel Humphreys, his earlier collaborator, derived from Racine and biblical sources. The next English oratorio relying on biblical sources was Saul, first performed at the King’s Theatre in London on 16 January 1739 and revived on a number of subsequent occasions.
During the following years Handel continued to develop the form of the oratorio, chiefly on biblical subjects but with an occasional excursion into the mythological. These works, with their Italianate melodies, strong choral writing and demonstrable dramatic sense, ensured their composer’s continued popularity and dominance, particularly, after his death, with the wider development of choral singing in the nineteenth century. Handel’s most famous oratorio, Messiah, was first performed in 1742, his last, Jephtha, ten years later. While Messiah may be exceptional in its ambitious subject, most of his oratorios treat narratives derived from the Old Testament, well characterized by the composer’s own descriptive title of them as sacred dramas.
Handel died in London in April 1759 and was buried, as he had requested, in Westminster Abbey, to be commemorated there three years later by an imaginative and slightly improbable monument by Louis François Roubiliac, who had provided, thirty years before, a statue of the composer, in his night-cap and slippers, as Apollo, for the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall, an indication of his popular reputation. His funeral drew a crowd of some three thousand mourners, while posthumous Handel celebrations could muster a similar audience in the Abbey, with a proportionate number of performers.
It was in 1744 that Handel undertook a particularly bold business venture. Buoyed by previous success, he arranged to lease the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, for a series of 24 concerts that would include earlier oratorios and two new works. The enterprise differed from earlier oratorio seasons in that performances were now to take place not only in Lent, when there was no competition from other theatrical activities, but at times when the town had much else to offer.
Handel’s new season of subscription concerts opened on 3 November with Deborah, but an announcement two days later in the Daily Advertiser revealed that attendances had been poor; since many subscribers were not in town, performances were not to continue until 24 November. After a second performance of Deborah and two performances of Semele, the series resumed on 5 January 1745 with the musical drama Hercules. The work proved unlucky from the start. Susanna Cibber, the sister of Thomas Arne, for whom Handel had written the dramatically unnecessarily extended part of Lichas, had to withdraw from the first performance at short notice. This was not the first time that she had had to cancel engagements, and she was soon to turn rather to spoken drama, becoming one of the great actresses of the period. Her arias were omitted, while the recitatives for Lichas were spoken or perhaps transposed and sung by the bass Gustav Waltz, who was suffering from a cold. There was a second performance, with Mrs Cibber, but even her presence was not enough to attract an audience. On 17 January Handel wrote to the Daily Advertiser proposing the discontinuation of the concert series, with the return of a proportion of their money to subscribers. This elicited a public response that gave Handel some encouragement, with only fourteen subscribers reclaiming their money, and the series was continued during Lent, including the second novelty of the proposed season, Belshazzar, which, nevertheless, fared little better than Hercules. The concerts were abandoned after sixteen of the planned 24 performances. A revival of Hercules in 1752, when three performances were given, again failed to please.
Something of the failure of Hercules reflected changes in public taste and the hostility of some in society who chose to compete with Handel by holding their own parties and receptions on the Saturdays outside Lent that Handel had been bold enough to reserve for his performances. One of the ladies, indeed, had taken fifty places for Garrick’s appearance as Hamlet at Drury Lane on the occasion of the first performance of Handel’s new work. Hercules, in any case, lacked the usual religious element in its choice of subject, and had none of the spectacular attractions of Italian opera. The former reason may explain to some extent the failure of the work to find a place in Handelian repertoire, where so much has traditionally been asssociated with the biblical subjects of oratorio. The text of Hercules was the work of Thomas Broughton (1704-1774), newly appointed Prebendary of Salisbury Cathedral, translator of Voltaire, and author of A Historical Dictionary of All Religions from the Creation of the World to the Present Time among other publications. Broughton based his libretto on the Trachiniae of Sophocles, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Seneca’s tragedy Hercules Oetaeus.
[1-7] After the Overture, the first scene opens in a royal apartment in Trachis, where the wife of Hercules, Dejanira, is found with the herald Lichas and a group of Trachinians. Lichas tries to bring Dejanira some comfort, as she laments the absence of her husband. They are joined by Hyllus, the son of Hercules, who has consulted the omens. The priest had spoken. [8-13] He had seen Hercules lying dead, with flames arising from Mount Oeta. Dejanira is horrified at the oracle, seeing herself in Hades with Hercules. Hyllus urges her not to despair and resolves to set out in search of his father, a decision that wins the approval of the Trachinians. [14-18] Lichas enters with the news that Hercules has sacked Oechalia and is returning in triumph. Dejanira is relieved at the news, and Lichas goes on to tell of the prisoners Hercules is bringing back with him, including the beautiful Princess Iöle. Hyllus feels pity for her, and learns from Lichas of the death of her father, killed by Hercules in single combat. Lichas comments on the change from grief to happiness, and the Trachinians comment on the situation.
[19-21] The scene changes to a square in front of the palace. Iöle and the Oechalian women are led in as captives. Iöle pities her maidens, who acknowledge her as still their mistress. She tells them that captivity makes all equal, and sings in praise of the liberty that she has now lost. [22-24] A march is heard and Hercules enters, with his attendants. He thanks Jupiter, his father, now that his labours are finished and Juno appeased. Turning to Iöle he tells her not to grieve, but she thinks of her father’s death. She leaves, with her maidens. Hercules looks forward to a farewell to arms and the consolations of love in the embrace of Dejanira. The Trachinians proclaim general rejoicing.
[1-3] The scene is an apartment in the palace, with Iöle and her Oechalian maidens. After the introductory Sinfonia, Iöle laments her change of fortune, wishing, instead, for the life of a shepherdess. [4-8] Dejanira enters, her jealousy already aroused. Iöle seeks to know what troubles her, and is upbraided by Dejanira for her beauty that has seduced Hercules. Iöle denies anything of the sort and asks the reason for Dejanira’s suspicions, to be told that Hercules had taken revenge on Oechalia only because his pursuit of Iöle had been rejected by her father. Iöle denies this, explaining that Hercules was motivated by ambition, not by any slighting of supposed love. [9-12] Lichas has heard Dejanira’s allegation and assures her of the love of Hercules, but she will not believe him, leaving him to blame jealousy, a sentiment with which the chorus agrees.
[13-17] Iöle, alone with her attendants, is joined by Hyllus, anxious to urge his love for her, which she has already rejected; her sorrow will not allow her any thoughts of love, least of all towards the son of the one who killed her father. She tells him to control his passion and banish from his heart the idea of love, turning rather to the emulation of his father. Hyllus still declares his love, and the chorus praises the power of the god of love.
[18-22] In another apartment Hercules is found with Dejanira, who blames him for succumbing to the charms of Iöle, making him a shame to manhood, his heart captured by a girl. Hercules denies the charge and leaves to attend the temple ceremonies at which sacrifice must be made for his victory. Dejanira, however, believes her husband untrue to her. [23-26] She remembers his oaths to her of fidelity and wonders how now to regain his love. Then she remembers the robe, dipped in the blood of the dying centaur Nessus, killed by Hercules, given to her as a charm to win again her husband’s love. The entry of Lichas allows her to employ him in the task, taking the robe to the temple as a gift from his wife. Lichas finds this a sign of love renewed. He leaves, and she is joined by Iöle. Dejanira excuses herself for her mistake and unreasonable jealousy, while Iöle wishes her well, when she herself must weep. Dejanira declares that she will ask Hercules to restore Iöle to freedom and her father’s throne. [27-30] Iöle and the chorus are happy at the outcome and as she leaves, Dejanira awaits the result of her plan, and the chorus hopes for the restoration of nuptial concord.
[1-5] Lichas calls on the Trachinians to mourn for the fate of Hercules, who has fallen by a woman’s hand. He tells how he presented the robe to Hercules, whose flesh was seared by the burning poison as he struggled to tear the garment from him, but to no avail. A Trachinian comments on the results of jealousy and the chorus laments the death of the world’s avenger. [6-9] At the temple of Jupiter Hercules writhes in pain, as the poison burns his flesh, calling for the wind or the sea to cool his boiling blood. He wonders how his labours had brought him only to this. He begs Hyllus to have him carried to the summit of Mount Oeta and to set him there on a funeral pyre, so that flames may carry him to the gods. Hyllus bemoans his father’s fate.
[10-12] In the palace Dejanira wonders where she may hide, calling on the Furies to punish her. She is joined by Iöle, whom she blames, yet Iöle is innocent. Iöle pities the fate of the house of Hercules. [13-19]The priest of Jupiter enters, with Hyllus, Lichas and the Trachinians, and tells Dejanira how an eagle swooped down from the clouds over the pyre of Hercules, and the voice of an oracle proclaimed his immortal soul carried to Olympus. Lichas envisages Hercules drinking nectar and eating ambrosia, the food of the gods. The same oracle has announced the marriage of Hyllus and Iöle, allowing all to end in happiness.
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