Hercules (Handel)

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Hercules (HWV 60) is a Musical Drama in three acts by George Frideric Handel, composed in July and August 1744. The English language libretto was by the Reverend Thomas Broughton, based on Sophocles's Women of Trachis and the ninth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses.[1]

Performance history[edit]

Hercules was first given at the King's Theatre in London on 5 January 1745 in concert style. There were only two performances in the original run.[2] The role of Lichas was originally a small one for tenor, but was rewritten at great length, with six airs, for Susanna Cibber, she, however, was too ill to sing on the first night, and the music was either omitted or redistributed on that occasion. She sang in the second performance on January 12, but the music for the chorus "Wanton God" and the air "Cease, ruler of the day" was never given in this opera: the latter was adapted for the final chorus of Theodora. The work was a total failure and caused Handel to suspend his season. Hercules obtained three further hearings, two in 1749 and one in 1752, for which the role of Lichas was entirely eliminated, and much of the other music was also cut.[3]

Hercules was originally performed in the theatre but like an oratorio without stage action. It is argued that this contributed to its later neglect as it did not make the transition into the church and the concert hall successfully. Its revival therefore occurred through reappraisal in the context of stage presentation, when it was acclaimed by Romain Rolland, Henry Prunières, Paul Henry Lang and others as one of the supreme masterpieces of its age.[3] The first modern performance was in Münster in 1925.

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere cast
5 January 1745
Hercules bass Thomas Reinhold
Dejanira, wife of Hercules mezzo-soprano Miss Robinson
Iole, daughter of the King of Oechalia soprano Elisabeth Duparc, called "La Francesina"
Hyllus, son of Hercules tenor John Beard
Lichas, a herald contralto Susanna Maria Cibber

Synopsis[edit]

Act I[edit]

The court laments the inconsolable grief of Dejanira, who is convinced that her husband, Hercules, has been killed whilst on a military expedition that has kept him absent from her. Once consulted, the oracles indicate that the hero is dead and the summits of Oeta are ablaze with fire. The prophecy confirms Dejanira's fears; however, their son, Hyllus, refuses to give up hope. As the latter prepares to set out in search of his father, Lichas arrives and announces that Hercules has returned alive after conquering Oechalia. Among the captives is the princess Iole of legendary beauty. Her predicament leaves Hyllus deeply moved. Despite having ravaged her country and sacrificed her father, Hercules reassures Iole that even though in exile, she may consider herself free.

Act II[edit]

Iole is seized by a yearning desire for a simple, humble form of happiness far removed from the machinations of power. Meanwhile, Dejanira, convinced that Hercules has been unfaithful to her, considers Iole's beauty as proof of his betrayal, even though her suspicions are resolutely refuted by her supposed rival. Lichas, too, observes the unstoppable progression of Dejanira's jealousy. Hyllus, for his part, having declared his love to the captive princess, suffers the agony of her rejection. While Hercules is summoned to celebrate the rites of his victory, Dejanira gives Lichas a garment for her husband as a token of reconciliation. The blood-soaked cloak, entrusted to her by Nessus as he lay dying defeated by Hercules, is apparently endowed with the power to lead a heart back to faithfulness. Meanwhile, Dejanira takes great pains to convince Iole that she regrets her accusations.

Act III[edit]

Lichas recounts how Hercules receives Dejanira's gift at the Temple and how the cloak is impregnated with a deadly poison. As his son watches on, the hero, undefeated until now, dies in appalling suffering and cursing Dejanira's vengeance. The last wishes expressed by the father to his son—that he be carried to the summit of Mount Oeta and set upon a funeral pyre—throw a belated light on the meaning of the oracle of the first act. Dejanira is informed of the glorious reception given to Hercules on Olympus. Discovering that she has been the instrument of his death, Dejanira sinks into madness. Such misfortune arouses the pity of Iole. Jove ordains the marriage between Hyllus and Iole, a decree that is received with joy by Hyllus and obedience by Iole.

Recordings[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Lang, Paul Henry (1996). George Frederic Handel. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 421–9. Retrieved 22 June 2011. 
  2. ^ Winton Dean, 'Hercules, "one of the greatest secular musical dramas in the English language",' in booklet accompanying RCA Victor records, Handel:Hercules (LSC 6181, 1968).
  3. ^ a b Dean 1968.

Sources[edit]