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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Hercules (1745) [189.49]
Dejanira – Nicola Wemyss (mezzo)
Iole – Gerlinde Sämann (soprano)
Lichas – Franz Vitzthum (counter-tenor)
Hyllus – Knut Schoch (tenor)
Hercules – Peter Kooij (bass)
First Oechalian – Liselotte Kuhn (soprano)
First Trachinian – Franz Schneider (bass)
Priest of Jupiter - Peter Kooij (bass)
Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachim Carlos Martini
rec live, Kloster Eberbach, Rheingau, 4 June 2006.
NAXOS 8.557960-62 [3CDs: 60.29 + 73.22 + 46.58]
Experience Classicsonline

Handel’s Hercules was the second oratorio-style work in which he tried to get away from a strictly biblical source for his stories. His first attempt, Semele, had been premiered in 1744 with distinctly mixed results. Handel does not seem to have been deterred and premiered Hercules in 1745 as part of a strikingly different season at the King’s Theatre. Instead of his usual Lenten oratorio diary, Handel attempted to tempt subscribers with a longer season that stretched well beyond Lent.

The experiment was not a success, Handel failed to find enough subscribers to fulfil the planned 24 concerts and neither of the new works, Hercules and Belshazzar, found favour. Hercules was revived for one performance in 1749, a further one in 1752 and then it disappeared until the 20th century.

Hercules has not had such a success in the 20th and 21st centuries as Semele, perhaps because the latter work has a more delightful principal character. Both works are moral stories and Handel probably viewed them in much the same vein as his dramatic oratorios. Though it must be admitted that Hercules is a far less winning work than Semele, the two principals (Hercules and his wife Dejanira) are powerfully drawn and made of strong, dark dramatic stuff.

It is perhaps tempting when casting Hercules to concentrate on Dejanira. After all it is she who has the most dramatic part, her initial jealousy at Hercules’s captive princess, Iole, turning to sober reflection, then her attempt at re-kindling Hercules’s love going drastically wrong leading to her mad-scene after his death. It is true that getting the casting of Dejanira right is important, but Hercules is a long oratorio and there is plenty for the remainder of the cast to do and it is important to get this right. Like many of Handel’s finest works they are ensemble pieces, requiring strong performances from each member, satisfying to perform when things go right, but easy to disrupt if one of the singers fails to make the grade.

On this new Naxos recording, taken down live at Kloster Eberbach, the first question that we must consider is how important are the words in any Handel oratorio? The cast contains only one native English speaker, mezzo-soprano Nicola Wemyss who sings Dejanira; the remainder are German and Dutch. Their English is variable, all the singers are comprehensible and it is possible to follow them without a libretto, but you would take none for a native English speaker. More importantly there are many places in the performance where the singer seems to be thinking more about pronouncing the language than using it expressively. Of course, some of the solecisms may be attributed to the fact that this is a live performance. Only Wemyss, when she finally gets going in Act 3, uses the words expressively. Interestingly, the other person who comes closest is soprano Gerlinde Sämann who sings Iole, and who happens to be blind.

I think I could live with this performance, just, as regards the standard of English, but it is certainly something to think about when considering whether to buy it.

Joachim Carlos Martini directs the piece in a controlled manner: it all feels a little bit careful and steady. This has an effect on the drama which does take quite a while to get going. In Act 2, Wemyss sings the part well, but just doesn’t seem to get quite jealous enough, though she is not helped by Martini’s tempered direction. Even the Junge Kantorei, in their Jealousy chorus in Act 2 seem to be being a little too careful. It is only in Act 3 that Wemyss really gets the bit between her teeth and carries the drama before her in Where shall I fly.

As Hercules, Peter Kooij has rather less to do than Wemyss. Kooij has a lovely baritonal sounding voice and produces some beautiful runs; his English is pretty good too. But he does not really strike sparks from Dejanira as he should in their Act 2 recitatives and his death scene, though well sung, seems a little too well modulated. The results are musical but seem to lack the drama that the piece calls for. That said, his entrance in Act 1 is both moving and powerful, so it seems a shame that this did not carry over into the final act.

Their son, Hyllus, spends most of the piece simply moping after Iole, who has rejected him. Knut Schoch has an attractive tenor voice and does what he can with the role. His passagework is occasionally smudged, but he sings with a lovely sense of line.

Lichas, the herald, has the role of observer of these trials, for ever commenting and never really participating. Nowadays this is a role often taken by counter-tenors but it was in fact written for a female alto, Mrs. Cibber, though due to illness she never performed the part. Here Franz Vitzthum has a lovely sense of line and feeling for the style of the music, but this is coupled to a rather distinctive sounding voice which, on this showing, seems to lack variety of vocal colour. Vitzthum’s  passagework is also rather smudged, though this is fault which applies to a number of the cast.

Iole, the captive princess, is the unwitting cause for all Hercules and Dejanira’s troubles. She is sung by Gerlinde Sämann with a lovely bright, focused voice and an attractive way with Handel’s complex vocal lines. This means that the sequence at the end of Act 2, where Iole’s aria is followed by her duet with Dejanira, is a complete delight. She is the only cast member to really articulate the passagework in a consistently clean manner.

The Junge Kantorei make decent work of Handel’s choruses, though they never really get the bit properly between the teeth in the drama. It does not help that some of the choruses are recorded in such a way that you can hear individual voices. There is also a little untidiness in some passages.

The Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra are also not immune to patches of untidiness, though generally they accompany discreetly. Martini tends to include rather too much organ in the recitatives for my taste; except for special effects Handel tended to reserve the organ for just the choruses. Also, in the tutti orchestral passages the harpsichord continuo is so discreet that at times it threatened to disappear altogether.

There are three strong versions of this oratorio in the catalogue already. John Eliot Gardiner’s fine one with Sarah Walker and John Tomlinson is now getting rather old, but still does not show its age, though Gardiner does make cuts. Mark Minkowski’s more recent version with Anne Sophie von Otter and Gidon Saks is a very, very strong contender. Then on DVD you have Joyce DiDonato and William Shimmell with William Christie and Les Arts Florisants in Luc Bondy’s fine, much-travelled production.

This is a well appointed set, but one which lacks the fire of drama. At three discs long you might consider it better to save up and try and get one of the other performances; frankly, that’s what I’d do.

Robert Hugill

see also Review by Mark Sealey


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