Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Coming Home

March 05, 2011

Eric Owens and Alice Coote Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2011

On Friday I made it out to Chicago and the most beautiful opera house in America for what was sadly for me, my first visit to the Lyric Opera there this season. The occasion was a new production of Handel’s English-language oratorio Hercules from legendary American director Peter Sellars. Sellars is having a busy year on American opera stages. Following his long-overdue debut at The Metropolitan Opera in New York with a re-creation of his original production for Adams' Nixon in China, he is mounting Hercules in Chicago before traveling to Santa Fe this summer for another new production, Vivaldi’s Griselda. Of course, while the Met may be slowly waking up to the last half-century of opera history, Chicago has not had its blinders on and Sellars' appearance here is one of an old friend having worked on many prior projects for the Lyric Opera in the past.

With Hercules, Sellars is joined by many of his preferred collaborators like set designer George Tsypin, lighting designer James F. Ingalls, and numerous vocalists such as Eric Owens and David Daniels. Sellars of course is not shy about plumbing Baroque operas for contemporary parallels, and this work is no different. Hercules is based on Sophocles’ The Trachiniae as well as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The plot follows Hercules’ return home to his wife Dejanira, son Hyllus, and confidant Lichas, after the completion of his labors. He is not alone however, having brought the captive princess Iole with him after ransacking her homeland Oechalia and killing her father. Dejanira soon becomes jealous and soon decides to give her husband a coat dipped in a magic liquid that she believes will restore his love. It does not and instead kills him in a manner similar to that used by Medea towards Glauce.

Eric Owens, Alice Coote, Lucy Crowe, and Richard Croft Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2011

Before this dramatic moment however, there are an awful lot of brows to furrow and hands to wring. Sellars’ take on this story is to cast it as an examination of veterans or more specifically, what happens when warriors return home. The war is over and the story is not about Hercules' heroic feats as much as it is about the trouble of coming home from the war. Think of it as PTSD: The Opera. In fact, in his pre-concert talk, Sellars pointed out how he and the company had worked directly with a number of U.S. veterans in the development of this production. Recasting the opera's focus is a clever idea and certainly a well-intentioned one. Hercules and Dejanira struggle to communicate with one another on his return and her jealousy is only one issue in his family’s inability to comprehend what he has seen. Handel’s focus in the oratorio musically is on the women, so much of Hercules angst is reflected in the difficulties with his family following his long-anticipated return. The stage action is decidedly contemporary. Dejanira, sung here by Alice Coote, at one point takes tranquilizers from pill bottles to steady her nerves and when a camouflage-clad Hercules enters with his prisoner Iole in Act I she is dressed in a Guantanamo Bay-orange jumpsuit complete with a black sack covering her head only to sing searingly about the joy and beauty of freedom.

Lucy Crowe is the soprano singing through that sack in her Lyric Opera debut and she did so amazingly not just in that instance, but throughout all of her arias. Crowe’s U.S. engagements have been few to date, but hopefully with performances like these that is about to change. The clear, sure beauty of her tone was well matched with an equally superb cast. David Daniels sang Lichas splendidly and Alice Coote was jaw-dropping in her two tragic arias in the second act of the show. Eric Owens in the title role continues to amaze me not only for his vocal performance, but how committed he is to even the most physical and precarious bits of stage business. He delivers his final aria here splayed upside-down on the rocks as Hercules is dying. All of this was expertly managed by one of the world’s first names in Baroque music, Harry Bicket who led an intense musical performance from the orchestra.

From Act III of Hercules Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2011

But to be honest, despite all the evening’s fine musical qualities and the excellent pedigree and ideas of the production team, in practice, the show can be a bit dull, even for a Baroque opera. This is essentially a stand and deliver production. Tsypin’s set, consisting of a dozen broken off pillars surrounding a central stage of his trademark amorphous rocks, does nothing. The cast stands in front of it the whole time, sometimes sitting on a bench. The chorus, who sounded wonderful, wanders on and off stage in their modern if vaguely Greek-influenced outfits moving through their sets of prescribed hand gestures. At one point they wheel out a barbecue grill but its about the only sizable prop used in the who three hours. Despite staging Hercules in this operatic form, its birth as an oratorio is still clearly in the air. It’s particularly slow going for the first 30 minutes of the show when the action is almost exclusively focused on Hercules’ family lamenting his absence. It is pretty, but Handel has not set this oratorio with an opening barn-burner and despite some fabulous lighting, and beautiful stage images, this is not the most involved or gripping stage action you’re going to see. The lighting, however, is great, invoking a hazy and arid landscape that can become quite colorful and menacing in the concluding "mad" scenes of the work.

But with music this good, and some good ideas, it’s hard to complain too much about the evening overall. It's a worthwhile concept that is almost convincing and that is still pretty darn good for the operatic stage. The show runs through March 21.


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