By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
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.
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.
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.
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.
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