by Lynn on April 9, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.  Composed by George Frideric Handel. Libretto by Reverend Thomas Broughton, after Women of Trachis by Sophocles and Metamorphoses by Ovid. Directed by Peter Sellars. Conducted by Harry Bicket. Set by George Tsypin. Costumes by Dunya Ramicova. Lighting by James F. Ingalls. Starring: David Daniels, Alice Coote, Richard Croft, Lucy Crowe, Eric Owens.

Co-production between the Canadian Opera Company and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Plays at the Four Seasons for the Performing Arts, April 11, 15, 19, 24, 27, 30.

The original work of Women of Trachis by Sophocles and various stories of the demise of Hercules from Metamorphoses by Ovid, have certainly provided a rich source of material for other writers and composers.  One theatre example is Martin Crimp’s play Cruel and Tender which played at the Young Vic in London several years ago and had a run at Canadian Stage a few years ago.

In it a brutal general comes triumphantly home from war, bringing a beautiful princess as one of his trophies which he will establish in his household and his wife better not complain. Various rifts form in the family dynamic. The wife tries to win her husband back with terrible results. Crimp’s text says that his play ‘takes Sophocles’ ancient story of marriage and violence- The Trachiniae– and propels it into a modern world of political hypocrisy and emotional terrorism.’

In 1745 composer George Frideric Handel and his librettist Reverend Thomas Broughton created what is described as ‘the musical drama’,  Hercules using both the source from Sophocles and Ovid. Hercules, the strongest man in the world, fights a war, slaughters many, and takes a young princess, Iole, home as a prize to live in the house with he and his wife. His wife, Dejanira, has waited and fretted about his safe return only to be insulted and shunted aside by Hercules and this young princess. Gradually Dejanira feels sorry for Iole who is a spoil of war, lamenting the loss of her people and her father—Hercules killed him in front of her.

Hyllus, the son of Hercules and Dejanira, has always felt inadequate and lesser in his father’s presence mainly because Hercules doesn’t hide his contempt of his son. Gradually Hyllus realizes how innocent Iole is in this situation and falls in love with her.

The ending is bitter sweet. Hercules suffers a terrible death; there is a healing marriage and crushing guilt by Dejanira who does something she believes is good only to realize it is disastrous. Handel seems true to the theme of women suffering in patience and silence in Sophocles and Ovid.

Director Peter Sellars has made a stellar career of giving a contemporary twist to classic works, be they opera or theatre. For example he set The Merchant of Venice in Venice Beach, California and will direct a chamber Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Stratford Festival this summer, with only four people set in a motel room.

With Hercules, Sellars has set the play in the modern day, during the recent Iraq war. Hercules and a representative soldier wear camouflage combat gear. Sellars has interpreted the work as the effects of war on the men who fight it and the families who wait and worry at home. In his Director’s Note in the program he writes that Sophocles named his play after the women who wait at home—The Women of Trachis—to show the larger scope of the effects of war.

Sellars also wrote a very detailed synopsis of his interpretation of the story, complete with reference to Hercules arriving home from battle by airplane. Fascinating.  Especially since much of his comments have no presence in his production. Why mention that Hercules comes home by airplane if there is no indication of it—no lighting effects suggesting a plane and no sound effects either. There is a reference to the cloth Dejanira uses to smear what she thinks is a love potion on Hercules’ vest to win him back. Dejanira sees that it is smoking and burning. But the audience doesn’t see that. I find if fascinating that at almost every turn when pyrotechnics or some visual manifestation can be used to illuminate a point, Sellars does not take it. Choosing instead to note it in the program.

Hmmm. Odd. As I’ve said in previous theatre reviews, if I have to consult a program to learn what the production meant to convey, then the production is a failure. Perhaps in the opera world it’s different. Hercules is by no means a failure. I just thought Sellars’ choices to be odd in some cases. In others they are masterful.

Iole is hauled on by a machine-gun toting soldier. He treats her roughly. She wears an orange jump suit like a prisoner in Abu Ghraib with a black hood covering her head and face. The way she is treated by the solider and later by Hercules is without consideration or respect. She is a spoil of war and there is no respect for her royal rank or what she has experienced. Only Dejanira and Hyllus come to realize what she has endured.

Sellars’ depiction of the chorus as people from every country, time period and walk of life is effective in showing who war affects and that it has gone on for centuries. I do wonder though at their gesticulating while they are singing as if to convey their words by Morse code. I also thought Sellars is absolutely bold and cheeky having singers sing while hooded, kneeling and on their backs. And while I am looking at Hercules from a theatrical point of view and am not qualified to comment on the music, (it sounded wonderful to me) even I know that having singers sing hooded, on their knees and on their backs is very challenging, and they do it beautifully.

Hercules has little regard for his son Hyllus. He condescends to him in his treatment of him and his looks. Sellars has Hyllus always on crutches, as if he is suffering some injury or other that is preventing him from being able bodied and fighting along side him in war. Sellars even has Richard Croft, who plays Hyllus, take his bow still with the crutches perhaps suggesting that Richard Croft who plays Hyllus actually needs crutches to move around. Inspired move, that. (Mr. Croft does not use crutches in ‘real life’.)

This is my first Peter Sellars’ production. I was always engaged; always thinking about his directorial choices and thinking about how it reflected the opera. I look forward to more Peter Sellars’ productions.

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