University of Hartford "H" Magazine - Winter 2019

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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Handel: Hercules

12/01/2019 1:00 pm
12/01/2019 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

George Frideric Handel turned to writing oratorios in English language in the 1740s only after it became clear that Italian opera seria was no longer fashionable in London. Oratorios were cheaper to produce than operas because they required no elaborate staging or costuming, and the stories from the King James Bible which Handel depicted in music were familiar to middle-class Londoners who knew no Italian. Handel also composed a number of hybrid works: odes or secular oratorios like l'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740), Semele (1744) and Hercules (1745), which he designated a "musical drama".

Hercules, like Semele, is closer to baroque opera in that its story is taken from classical mythology. Hercules here is a tragic hero, and his wife Dejanira is likewise a tragic figure. She tortures her hero husband to death. The role of Dejanira is a study in jealousy, guilt, and remorse. Musically and dramatically, Hercules is Handel at his very best. Yet the oratorio was a failure. It has only occasionally been recorded. There's an excellent 1982 recording for DGG Archiv with John Eliot Gardiner leading the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir. I presented it in CD reissue on Sunday, November 15, 1992.

Hercules was recorded again in 2006, live in concert performance at Kloster Eberbach, Rheingau, Germany. Joachim Carlos Martini directs the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra and the Junge Kantorei chorus. Dejanira is the Scottish mezzo Nicola Wemyss. Naxos released this newer Hercules on three compact discs in 2008.