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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Handel, Hercules: Les Arts Florissants, cond. William Christie. Barbican Theatre, 18.3.2006 (ME)

‘Les Arts Florissants’ has a glorious reputation, founded on evenings of such musical and dramatic perfection as the unforgettable, unsurpassed ‘Il Ritorno di Ulisse’ in this same theatre in 2002, but where that production excelled by its staggeringly moving simplicity, this one was far too self-consciously contrived to have a similar effect. Ulysses and Hercules share a narrative in that they are both returning heroes with some tricky situations awaiting them at home, but of course our sympathies are differently directed when it comes to their responses.

This production, by the very modish Luc Bondy, is one of those which attempts to ‘update’ the action: well, sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t – when it does, it is as a result of an inspired re-working, such as that of Miller’s ENO ‘Rigoletto’ or Sellars’ ‘Giulio Cesare’ – however, this was not the case here. As the set is revealed, we are, yet again, in one of those no-man’s-lands – are we amongst the Mujahideen? The Kibbutz settlers, on the verge of warfare with neighbouring Palestinians? Were we to expect an outing for the near-obligatory AK47s? Thankfully, no – just some inexplicable orange-squeezing, vague consternation amongst the chorus (who appeared to have been dressed from the pages of Boden’s Spring catalogue) and plenty of massive statuary. I disagree with those who say that this work should not be staged: it has everything required for a genuine tragedy of near-Greek proportions, but doing it like this merely cheapens the heightened emotions on display. It’s one thing to present Hercules as a swaggering bully-boy, quite another to give us a Dejanira whose emotions are depicted with all the semaphoring of a frazzled housewife from a made-for-TV soap, and an Iole with all the vulnerability of a gum-chewing, magazine-flipping dimwit.

The singing didn’t help much, either – I attended the last of three performances, so perhaps tiredness had set in. The major impression was of lack of audibility and clarity: critics often complain about poor diction at the ENO, but this lot made your average ENO cast member sound like Lady Bracknell. Ed Lyon looked wonderful as Hyllus, but only about one third of his words came across, and his tone does not have the ‘ring’ of Toby Spence, who takes the role on the DVD version. Ingela Bohlin as Iole was unable to sing owing to a throat infection, so she mimed the part whilst Hannah Bayodi sang it from the pit – hers were the only fully audible words. The Lichas of Katija Dragojevic displayed some very fine tone but was hampered by too much stage business.

William Shimell burst onto the stage in full swagger mode, but then was made to conduct himself like Trevor Eve in yet another of that actor’s womanizing roles – there’s a striking resemblance, in fact. Shimell’s has never been the most beautiful of baritone voices, but it has an attractively grainy quality of which he knows how to make the best use. Joyce diDonato set my teeth on edge with all her hand-wringing, but Dejanira has some of Handel’s loveliest music, and she made the most of There in myrtle shades reclined. The Chorus, despite all the daft posturings, sang finely, especially in Jealousy! Infernal pest, and William Christie directed some characteristically sprightly playing from the orchestra, although even they seemed rather subdued at times. Not the best of this wonderful group’s evenings – perhaps greater things were seen and heard on the first night, although my colleagues do not seem to have been universally ecstatic.

Melanie Eskenazi





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