Opera review: Peter Sellars stages Handel’s ‘Hercules’ in Chicago


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CHICAGO -- The discourse of war is interminable.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Sophocles, who had experience commanding troops, considered war’s unspoken effects on society in “Women of Trachis.” There, Hercules discovers the ultimate horror of war is returning home unfit for domestic life.

Handel further revealed how wartime estrangement can destroy peacetime peace in his 1745 operatic oratorio “Hercules,” based in part on Sophocles’ tragedy. The Age of Enlightenment, however, was not so enlightened. “Hercules” flopped. Even now audiences tend to shy away from Handel’s merciless survey of psychic breakdown.


Friday night it was Peter Sellars’ turn to speak the unsaid in a ruthlessly intimate, psychologically penetrating production and spellbinding performance of Handel’s “Hercules” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. On the day that Mayor Richard M. Daley posed cutting a gaudy birthday cake to celebrate this city’s 174th birthday, Sellars, in a talk before the performance, reminded operagoers that one third of Chicago’s homeless are veterans and that post-traumatic stress syndrome is tearing lives apart.

In Handel’s drama, Hercules returns from his onerous labors knowing only combat. He is uncommunicative. His wife, Dejanira, has endured years of lonely uncertainty. Hercules brings home a beautiful young prisoner, Iole, and Dejanira suspects infidelity. They bicker incessantly.

In hopes of reviving their relationship, Dejanira gives Hercules a jacket soaked in what she believes to be a love potion, but she has been tricked. It is poison. With the garment fused to Hercules’ skin, he dies in anguish. The horrified Dejanira snaps and commits suicide, calling for whips of scorpions to lash her ghost. Iole and Hercules’ son, Hyllus, vow to make a better world.

In Sellars’ staging, Hercules is an American soldier in combat gear just returned home from the Middle East. Iole is brought in wearing the orange jump suit of a prisoner in Abu Ghraib, and she sings her first aria from under a hood.

But the production is not so much an updating as an attempt to find archetypal equivalents through the ages. The eloquently austere set by George Tsypin is a field of ancient Greek ruins. James F. Ingalls’ potent lighting represents the fiery rise and smoldering descent of a relentless sun on Hercules’ last day of life. Dunya Ramicova’s costumes imply the modern-day America and the Middle East, Handel’s 18th century and Sophocles’ Athens. The idea of war unites us in time and place, and this “Hercules” is about what events do to people. Although written as an oratorio, “Hercules” is essentially Baroque opera in that it contains mainly solo arias with just a handful of short choruses. And Sellars has made the production all the more theatrical through judicial cutting and by conflating Handel’s three acts into two so that it more closely follows the structure of Sophocles’ play.

Shakespeare, too, has also clearly influenced Sellars’ approach to Handel. Sellars’ productions of ‘Merchant of Venice” some years ago in Chicago and “Othello” more recently in New York both revolved around the revelation of tragedy as the result of the inability or unwillingness for open communication.


In “Hercules” at the Lyric we watch psychic venom work, drop by drop. Hercules has shut down his feelings and Handel gives him little to sing but makes his presence felt in every note of the three-hour opera. Eric Owens made him terrifying. How impressive this baritone has grown from the big galoot of a monster in Elliot Goldenthal’s “Grendel” at Los Angeles Opera five years ago to this silent, menacing vet whose inability to express what has happened to him destroys him and Dejanira.

The opera’s big role is Dejanira, the wife who doesn’t know where to turn. The magnificent British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote depicts the extensive range of modern desperation and our discontents. Unable to break Hercules’ stonewalling, Coote’s breakdown ranks with theatrical performances of legend.

As Iole, the British soprano Lucy Crowe is a new star born, both for her searing expression of a prisoner’s pain and for the luminous light she shines on one of Handel’s most compassionate arias, “My breast with tender pity swells.” The countertenor David Daniels and the tenor Richard Croft recorded the roles of Lichas, Dejanira’s confidant who recounts Hercules horrid death, and her son, Hyllus, a decade ago. They were excellent singers then. Now they are profound ones.

The Lyric chorus became the people prophetic. Harry Bickett conducted a performance true to the spirit of Handel’s time yet truer still to Sellars’ stress points.

Daley needs to put down his cake knife and head over to Civic Opera House. Better still, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, who has promised to be an arts mayor, needs to persuade his former Chicagoan boss in the White House to see this “Hercules.”

An opera performance this great is plenty rare. But opera capable of inspiring moral action is for the ages.


[For the record: an earlier version of this review identified Richard Croft as a baritone.]


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-- Mark Swed in Chicago