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In Hercules’ palace, Dejanira waits for news of her husband Hercules, the world’s strongest man, who has been away at war. Dejanira fears he will never return. Their son Hyllus reports the priests have prophesized his father’s imminent death, with a vision of Hercules’ corpse surrounded by flames. Hyllus swears to travel to the ends of the earth to find his father. At that moment, the herald Lichas announces Hercules is alive, having conquered Oechalia, and is on his way home. He brings with him prisoners, including the lovely princess Iole as a war trophy. Iole and her virgin attendants are led in, mourning their loss of liberty. Iole bewails the death of her father at Hercules’ hands, which contrasts sharply with the jubilant celebration of the hero.
Back in the palace, Dejanira admits she is threatened by Iole, fearing that sorrow makes beautiful women irresistible. With little evidence, she believes Hercules has betrayed her with Iole. Iole denies it. Hyllus – who has fallen in love with the captive princess – tries to convince Iole to return his feelings, but she refuses his advances, saying she cannot love the son of the man who killed her father and destroyed her homeland.
Meanwhile, Dejanira confronts Hercules, chastising him for trading the glory of victory for the shame of infidelity. Hercules denies any wrongdoing, but this does little to allay Dejanira’s suspicions. Suddenly, Dejanira remembers a vest given to her years before by the centaur Nessus, after he suffered a fatal poison arrow fired by Hercules. The blood-soaked garment is said to “revive the expiring flame of love.” With hope of rekindling their passion, Dejanira gives the vest to Lichas and asks him to deliver the peace offering to her husband. Iole enters, and Dejanira apologizes for her earlier jealousy. Iole expresses happiness for the royal couple’s love and “sorrow at her own predicament,” and Dejanira promises to do what she can to secure the princess’s release.
A violent and intense overture makes it clear that all is not well. Lichas tells the Trachinians of the terrible events he has just witnessed – the coat has fatally burnt Hercules’s flesh. His death is inevitable. Railing against Dejanira for causing his demise, Hercules asks Hyllus to burn his body on a funeral pyre atop Mount Oeta. At the palace, Dejanira’s realization that she has unwittingly carried out Nessus’s revenge torments her, and she teeters on the brink of insanity. Iole pities the woes of the couple, as she decides that she is the guilty cause. A priest then tells Dejanira that an eagle has transported Hercules’ spirit to Olympus, to join the gods for eternity. The priest also announces that the gods have declared Iole and Hyllus destined for each other. The two pledge their love, and the priest and chorus praise Hercules for bringing peace and liberty to all.
Lucy Crowe as Iole and Eric Owens as Hercules in the Canadian Opera Company/Lyric Opera of Chicago co-production of Hercules. Photo: Dan Rest © 2011 (Lyric Opera of Chicago)