Hercules (DVD-video)
~ HWV 60 ~

Bel Air Classiques BAC013
2 DVDs (NTSC format)
full price
Recorded in 2004.
Released in 2005.

Hercules: William Shimell, bass
Dejanira: Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano
Hyllus: Toby Spence, tenor
Iole: Ingela Bohlin, soprano
Lichas: Malena Ernman, mezzo-soprano
Priest of Jupiter: Simon Kirkbride, bass

Les Arts Florissants (on period instruments)
Music Director: William Christie
Stage Director: Luc Bondy
TV director: Vincent Bataillon


(Recorded at Palais Garnier, Paris.)

The flighty hero Hercules has already done many feats and some misdeeds. He returns home, awaited by his jealous wife Dejanira. But Hercules is not only a drama about jealousy. According to Bondy, Dejanira’s jealousy is the expression of deep and unappeased desire which shall lead her to fury. Handel magnificently illustrates this mythological drama with processes used both in his Italian operas and other music dramas, stretching the conventions of dramma per musica, particularly in greater flexibility in the sequences of arias and scene construction. The presence of some choruses has many consequences on the structure and the nature of the work. The English language, offering inflexion different from Italian, influences the colours and the nature of the vocal line.

Some reviews were quite harsh when this production was first performed during summer 2004 at the Festival International d’Art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence. This DVD was made at a single performance in December 2004 at the Palais Garnier in Paris. It reveals the intelligence and relevance of Luc Bondy’s approach in a dazzling way. The unique adjustable scenery, made of big stockades, sand and a giant broken statue of the hero, is an ideal frame to illustrate desertion and waiting. The costumes are sober and contemporary: town suits, combat gear and uniforms. They look good here, and are not just signs that the stage director lacks imagination. The platform is ideal for the characters to show us their wanderings and divisions.

The cast is theatrically ideal and benefits from very fine direction; they impress, strike and move the audience deeply. One can imagine a baritone with a better legato in fast runs than William Shimell, but a certain brutish side is perfectly welcome to this ambiguous interpretation of the role. Toby Spence does not sound able to mix registers quite as comfortable as one might like, but his performance is excellent. Malena Ernman is a masculine and endearing Lichas: with her marked passagio and muscular body, she deserved less cuts to the part. Swedish soprano Ingela Bohlin – who was an excellent Morgana in a recent production of Alcina at Amsterdam – is moving and full of charm as Iole. Joyce DiDonato is a great Dejanira, maybe slightly too carried away by her fury at times but of a wonderful vocal and emotional density.

Hercules was Luc Bondy's first baroque experience, but the choices he made – sometimes inferred by references to Sophocles – are always respectful to the work and give depth to each character. Furthermore, Les Arts Florissants are at their best (which is not that common in Handel’s music). The da capos are sober but with high quality ornaments and cadenzas which are definitely musical, emotional and dramatic. Last but not least, another exceptional element of this production is the TV direction by Vincent Bataillon. He catches the depth of expression without misusing close-ups. He enables the spectator to penetrate the intimacy of the characters while not being embarrassed to show the big and almost empty space of the stage. Even though some cuts to Handel’s text are regrettable, we do not have to deny ourselves the numerous pleasures felt with this production. If this were just an audio recording without the image, this Hercules would have its place among the best recordings of this work; with the image it ranks with Theodora and Serse as one of the very rare essential Handel DVDs.

© Philippe Gelinaud - January 2006

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