Handel’s opera Hercules, composed in 1744, promises an evening of extreme catharsis. The drama focuses upon Hercules’s wife, Dejanira, as we follow her despair at his absence, joy at his homecoming, jealousy of the beautiful Iole, and guilt and self-loathing as she realises that through this misplaced jealousy she has unintentionally murdered her husband. Oxford Opera’s rendition, fully staged at St John the Evangelist church, managed this emotional rollercoaster with subtlety and flair whilst managing to bring a certain humour to the lighter moments.
All of the five soloists handled their parts sensitively, maintaining not only vocal but emotional balance throughout. David Le Provost’s appearance as Hercules was spectacular, bringing all the airs of arrogance and self-content needed to the role. His aria ‘Now farewell, arms!’ was a particular highlight, managing to appear inebriated whilst maintaining technical control of the semiquaver passages. His acting and vocal prowess was complemented by Tara Mansfield as Iole, the princess taken captive by Hercules. Unfortunately however there were some tuning issues in the orchestra, and moments where the interaction between soloist and orchestra could have been tighter despite excellent musical direction from James Potter.
The modern staging worked well overall, and allowed for some interesting effects such as staging a nightclub-style party behind Iole during her opening aria. Having her sing of her sorrow and isolation whilst distanced from the flashing lights and jollity of Hercules’ homecoming was particularly effective, as were the majority of the lighting decisions in general. St John’s church provided an atmospheric setting for the drama, the lights bouncing off the cavernous roof to create spectacular shadows that loomed over the drama. Somewhat more dubious directorial decisions involved having Dejanira (Johanna Harrison) tear up a newspaper during one of her arias. Number operas such as Hercules, with vast amounts of time to fill while one soloist’s vocal prowess is showcased, present the contemporary director with numerous challenges that in this case were not always fully met. While the symbolism of her shredding the bad news that the papers brought her was appropriate, as a dramatic device it somewhat lost its impact when repeated for the full duration of the aria.
This rendition of Hercules boasts strong soloists, inventive staging, and superb acting. Despite some moments that were less convincing and coherent than they might have been, it remains an exciting student production.