Parlando: The COC Blog


Eight Things to Know About George Frideric Handel’s Hercules

By Nikita Gourski, Development Communications Officer

Eight things about Hercules

This April, Handel’s Hercules has its COC premiere in a new co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago. Here are eight key things you may want to know before you head to your seat!

1) Based on mythology, rooted in real life
Handel’s Hercules is based on an ancient Greek tragedy, Women of Trachis, written by Sophocles around 450 BC. In addition to being one of the most celebrated playwrights of his era, Sophocles was a war general who understood the emotionally intense – even dangerous – landscape that awaited soldiers and their families after a period of war. Though the subject derives from mythology, Sophocles’ treatment of it was profoundly human.

2) Musical drama
Born in Germany in 1685, Handel moved to London, England, in his mid-20s and took the city by storm with his Italian-language operas. By the 1740s, however, conventional operas were declining in popularity in London and Handel turned his attention to oratorios, musical entertainments sung in English, based on Biblical stories, and performed unstaged (i.e. without scenery, costumes or stage action). Though Hercules (1745) had much in common with the oratorio genre, Handel himself called it a “musical drama,” perhaps recognizing the work’s hybridity: it incorporated operatic conventions (narrative-based structure, da capo arias) as well as oratorio forms (choral music, accompanied recitatives), yielding a new and powerful way of telling secular stories in the theatre.

3) The art of adaptation
The libretto was written by Thomas Broughton, an English clergyman, who in addition to relying on Sophocles’ stage play also spliced in material from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and almost certainly Seneca’s Latin tragedy Hercules Oetaeus. Today, director Peter Sellars has compressed the libretto to bring its structure closer to the Greek play that inspired it, “putting Handel,” as Sellars says, “in direct collaboration with Sophocles.”

4) Visionary director
American stage director Peter Sellars (Tristan und Isolde, 2013) is one of the most important and innovative figures in the performing arts today. Rather than supplying a perfumed escape from the world, Sellars’ productions have always sought to return us to the moral tensions and social problems of our day, with the ultimate aim of reenergizing the arts as a vehicle for moral action.

“In making himself an artist whose preoccupations and concerns grapple with nothing less than the fate of humanity, Peter Sellars has created a body of work that will transcend epoch and place, style and fad.” Opera News

A scene from Hercules

5) Hercules today
Sellars’ production focuses on post-traumatic stress disorder. Hercules is presented as a U.S. Army general who struggles to reunite emotionally with his family after returning home from war in Iraq or Afghanistan. The modern setting illuminates the universal elements of Handel’s work within a grid of contemporary signs – U.S. battle fatigues; Abu-Ghraib orange jumpsuits; flag-draped coffins – while emphasizing that the social and psychological toll of war isn’t a bygone relic, but an everyday reality.

“An opera performance this great is plenty rare. But opera capable of inspiring moral action is for the ages.” Los Angeles Times

In addition to a number of other ancillary events engaging with veterans and their families, on April 4, Peter Sellars will sit on a panel that explores Hercules and the role of music in the rehabilitation and reintegration of those touched by war. Learn more about the Opera Exchange here.

6) War is hell
The minimalist sets are by George Tsypin, designer of the opening ceremony at the Sochi Olympics. Though clearly depicting the modern day – there is a backyard barbecue, cans of beer – the sets also work on a symbolic plane, as partially destroyed columns along the edges of the stage evoke ancient Greek architecture and the physical cost of battle. Combined with lighting designer James F. Ingalls’ use of dramatic reds and oranges, the impression is of a hellish place, scorched and devastated by war.

7) Dream team
The very same team who made Hercules such a hit in Chicago in 2010, are here in Toronto to revisit this poignant tragedy.

Hercules: Grammy Award-winner American bass-baritone Eric Owens makes his COC debut in the title role. As Hercules, he “speaks to you even in his silences… and shakes you when he singsChicago Sun-Times.

Dejanira: British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote returns after her making her COC debut as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, 2011. Her Dejanira “ranks with theatrical performances of legendsLos Angeles Times.

Lichas: American countertenor David Daniels returns to the COC after last appearing in Xerxes, 1999. He's been called “the most acclaimed countertenor of the day, perhaps the best everNew York Times.

Hyllus: American tenor Richard Croft returns to the COC after more than twenty years (Così fan tutte, 1992). His performance as Hyllus is “profoundLos Angeles Times.

Iole: British soprano Lucy Crowe makes her COC debut as the imprisoned princess, and is “a major discoveryChicago Tribune.

British conductor and Baroque specialist Harry Bicket returns to the COC after conducting Orfeo ed Euridice, 2011; Idomeneo, 2009; and Rodelinda, 2005. Conducting this production of Hercules in Chicago, he gave “a performance true to the spirit of Handel’s time yet truer still to Sellars’ stress pointsLos Angeles Times

8) Suffering, transformed
“Handel believed that the first way to go into a difficult or dangerous place is with a lot of beauty. So the music is just ravishingly beautiful. It transmutes the suffering into another place…” Peter Sellars. Explore Handel’s transformative score with our Hercules listening guide.

Photos: (top) Lucy Crowe as Iole and Eric Owens as Hercules; (middle) Eric Owens as Hercules; (middle) A scene from Hercules; (bottom) (l–r) Alice Coote as Dejanira, David Daniels as Lichas and Richard Croft as Hyllus. All photos from the Canadian Opera Company/Lyric Opera of Chicago (LOC) co-production of Hercules, 2011, LOC. Photos: Dan Rest

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The Big COC Podcast Episode 22

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

For Episode 22, the “All cross-over, all the time” edition, we welcome back opera journalist Paula Citron and opera conductor Stephen Lord, and joining The Big COC Podcast for the first time is Jenna Douglas, a Toronto-based collaborative pianist and founder of the new opera blog, Schmopera. Gianmarco Segato, the COC’s Adult Programs Manager is your host. 

This episode’s stories all somehow settled around that eternal question of “How the heck do we manage to keep opera ‘relevant’?” 

Are you listening? Let us know your thoughts, opinions and suggestions by commenting here, or on Facebook, Twitter or by e-mail (

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Hercules Listening Guide

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

Hercules Listening Guide


As with 1744’s Semele, produced by the COC in 2012, Handel’s Hercules (1745) was a response to the waning popularity of the Italian operas which had been hugely successful and had dominated his output in the 1730s. At first glance, Hercules, like Semele, might seem to belong more in the world of oratorio than opera. However, from the start Hercules was recognized as a “musical drama,” as was printed in the original libretto.

Both Handel and his librettist Thomas Broughton consistently referred to the major divisions in Hercules as “acts” (as they are called in opera) rather than “parts” (as in oratorio). Borrowing from Italian opera, Handel uses the full da capo aria structure (in which the opening section is repeated after a contrasting middle section) more frequently than he did in his biblical oratorios like Messiah. He even uses the da capo form in the chorus, “Love and Hymen, hand in hand” which concludes Act II. Handel’s incorporation of these conventions in Hercules therefore places it, at least in part, within the realm of opera.

However, by not limiting himself entirely to the strictures of opera and still embracing oratorio, Handel was able to free himself up to use a wider variety of forms with greater leeway to follow the sense of the words as he thought fit. A prime example of this is found in Excerpt #4, Dejanira’s remarkable quasi-mad scene which is constructed from a series of intensely dramatic accompanied recitatives with hardly a nod to conventional aria forms.

More than anything, Hercules shows Handel still determined to “write for himself,” forging ahead with a new kind of opera/oratorio hybrid even when his first foray into this genre (Semele) was decidedly unpopular with London audiences. Handel was obviously looking for new ways to treat secular subjects in a dramatic way. However, for a good portion of his audience, oratorio was deemed suitable for religious subjects only and therefore not ranked highly as a theatrical entertainment.

Musical Excerpt #1

Act II, scene iii: Recitativo/Chorus: “In vain you strive his falsehood to disguise!... Jealousy! Infernal pest”

Connection to the Story
The Chorus warns Dejanira to beware of jealousy since she believes Hercules to have designs on Iole.

Musical Significance

Handel uses the choruses in Hercules to provide necessary formal closure at the end of acts, but elsewhere (as in this excerpt), they serve to comment on the action. Listen at 1:03 for the hushed, expressive way the chorus sings the words “jealousy, infernal pest” which are meant as a warning to Dejanira who suspects her husband of being unfaithful to her with the captive princess. The extensive involvement of the chorus in Hercules skews the piece slightly more in the direction of traditional oratorio. However, Handel ensures the work’s hybrid nature by also including more “operatic” forms such as the da capo aria which helps place it somewhere between the oratorio and operatic worlds.

Musical Excerpt #2

Act II, scene vi: Recitativo/Aria: “Dissembling, false, perfidious Hercules… Cease, ruler of the day, to rise”

Connection to the Story

Dejanira does not trust Hercules’ protestations of innocence regarding the affair she suspects him of having with Iole.

Musical Significance

This excerpt opens with a traditional recitativo secco (dry recitative), that is, sung passages which are heavily tied to the rhythms of speech and are usually accompanied by bass and harpsichord. In the case of this excerpt, an organ provides the accompaniment, again situating Hercules more in the church-based oratorio tradition. After the recitative, the instrumental introduction to the aria begins at 0:41 and then, the sung text at 0:58. In keeping with Handel’s desire to push musical boundaries, this aria is not written in the usual da capo format in which the opening “A” section is repeated after an intermediary, often contrasting “B” section. Instead, we get a continuous, one-movement aria consisting of several variations on the main “cease ruler of the day” theme (which can be heard from 0:57-1:16). This understated, sinuous, almost reticent melody communicates the necessary air of disillusionment which Dejanira is experiencing, no matter how misguided her anguish might be. The “modernity” of this aria is also reflected in its chromaticism, that is, Handel’s reliance on the smallest intervals between notes in the Western musical scale. This produces unease in the vocal line which is in keeping with the character’s disappointment and disillusionment.

Musical Excerpt #3

Act III, Scene ii: Recitativo/Recitativo accompagnato/Aria: “Great Jove! Relieve his pains… Was it for this unnumbered toils I bore?... Let not fame the tidings spread.”

Connection to the Story

Hercules, in his last agonies, blames Dejanira and asks Hyllus to carry his body to the top of Mount Oeta to be burned on a funeral pyre. Hyllus hopes that news of Hercules’ death will not reach the Oechalians quickly.

Musical Significance

The recitative which opens this excerpt includes sections of recitativo accompagnato (accompanied by the rest of the orchestra) unlike the previous aria which was introduced solely by recitativo secco. Listen at 1:32 where Handel purposefully begins the fully orchestrated section of the recitative at Hercules’ words, “My pains redouble – Oh! be quick, my son, and bear me to the scene of glorious death,” thereby reinforcing the dying man’s urgency.

The aria itself begins at 2:09 and is of typical da capo form. Its agitated, coloratura-filled vocal line is well-suited to Hyllus’ concern that the news of Hercules’ death not reach Oechalia (the land the hero had most recently conquered), for fear the “baffled foe… [would] triumph in the victor’s fall.” The repeat of the aria’s opening “A” section begins at 4:42 and it is here that the singer demonstrates his virtuosity by taking an already complicated line, making it even more spectacular by playing with rhythms, adding trills (quick oscillations between two notes) and filling in larger intervals with quick, running notes.

Musical Excerpt #4

Act III, Scene iii: Recitativo accompagnato: “Where shall I fly

Connection to the Story
Dejanira, horrified that she has become the agent of Hercules’ death, has a vision of the furies rising to torment her guilty soul.

Musical Significance

Probably the most astonishing solo passage in Hercules is this extended scena for Dejanira composed as a free-form accompanied recitative owing very little to any formal aria structure. Throughout, her torment is telegraphed by quick mood changes signified by very different styles of vocal writing. Listen for example to the transition between the highly ornate, coloratura (quick, scale-like passages) and staccati (quick, short notes) of the “See the dreadful sisters rise” section at 1:34 in contrast with “Hide me from their hated sight, friendly shades of blackest night!” at 2:03. At this point, Handel drains all colour from the vocal line thus indicating the character’s fear and desperation. The music continues on in this vein, alternating between the frenzied and the pathetic – no wonder it is often referred to as Dejanira’s mad scene!


Photo: (banner) Alice Coote as Dejanira and Lucy Crowe as Iole in the Canadian Opera Company/Lyric Opera of Chicago (LOC) co-production of Hercules, 2011, LOC. Photo: Dan Rest

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001