Händel – Hercules

Opéra National de Paris – Garnier, December 6 2004

Conductor: William Christie. Production: Luc Bondy. Hercules: William Shimell. Dejanira: Joyce DiDonato. Hyllus: Toby Spence. Iole: Ingela Bohlin. Lichas: Malena Ernman. Priest of Jupiter: Simon Kirkbride. Orchestra and Chorus of Les Arts Florissants.

Händel
Having heard that the first part (acts 1 and 2) of this production lasted 2 hours 15 minutes, I had asked, on the web, if it was fair on the audience. As it turned out, my fears for my bottom were unfounded. It’s a credit to both Händel and William Christie that an almost 4-hour evening of da capo arias should have sped by without a moment’s boredom. I’ve sometimes complained that Christie’s performances of Rameau were, to me, too “feathery” or “fluffy.” There was little of that here. Apart from occasional prolonged passages of virtuoso piano or pianissimo playing, in a sense a mannerism, this was Händel at his best, full of nuance, invention and – as Christie pointed out in a radio interview this week – humanity. The entry of the chorus in the marvellous “Jealousy” gave me goose bumps.

I’m sure it’s still possible to cross the channel and bring back an all-English Händel cast of the now-old school: the kind of noble, stiff-upper-lip stoicism you find, say, on Gardiner’s recording. Christie’s cast is younger and less homogenous, and I sometimes wished for a little more of the vocal power of those English troupers. However, these were still genuine voices, not voiceless wonders, and the British tradition was firmly upheld by Toby Spence, the well-brought-up English tenor equivalent of a Hugh Grant; William Shimell, looking like Jean Réno dressed as Rambo and making what he could of the rather thankless part of Hercules; or even Simon Kirkbride in his brief but highly satisfactory appearance at the end.

Malena Ernman (Lichas) was something of a weak link, with an interesting timbre but too little volume for the Palais Garnier. Ingela Bohlin, on the other hand, was something of a discovery: a light, youthful, agile soprano with a pretty vibrato at the top, reminiscent perhaps of a young Barbara Hendricks.

Joyce DiDonato put in a very strong performance, both vocally and as a tragic actress. Egged on by Christie, she took “Where shall I fly? Where hide this guilty head? at a furious pace without accident. Earlier, in act 2, it had seemed as if “Cease, ruler of the day, to rise” would be one of those rare, magic moments in the opera house when the audience is reduced to breathless silence and time is suspended. I thought way back to Arleen Auger in Alcina. DiDonato, kneeling at the stage apron, took the da capo still quieter and more slowly… until the magic was shattered and the aria utterly ruined by a mobile phone on the front row, which struck up with the overture to Carmen. Christie was visibly enraged, and at the interval led the culprit to the side and berated her in full sight of the still-applauding audience.

Luc Bondy, as Christie also said in that radio interview, certainly gets his singers to act: this was an evening of music theatre, no doubt about that. “Around” the acting, as it were, the production (booed on the opening night) was largely unobtrusive. When the curtain rose, what we saw might have been a set for Elektra: there were the shuttered concrete bunker walls, there the broken colossal statue lying in pieces in the sand, familiar from so many productions of Strauss’s work. And it was easy to guess, right then, that the statue would make an appearance complete at the end. It did.

It was a single set, with occasionally some stairs sliding out here, for the chorus to stand or sit on, or a rectangular opening appearing there, letting in strong sunlight. Hercules was, as I mentioned, dressed as a modern soldier in mud-spattered great-coat. Dejanira and Iole wore nicely-pleated cocktail dresses. And the rest of the cast were dressed in that studiedly ordinary way – like clipart figures in a PowerPoint presentation, or 20-somethings at a papal rally – favoured by, say, Peter Sellars: plain, coloured tops, plain skirts or trousers, sensible shoes.

Sellars would have found more for the chorus to do – with their arms at any rate; here, they were left to wander rather a lot, as if wondering quite what you can do while your soloist colleagues are going through the da capo ritual. The “ideas” in the production were trivial and irrelevant: for example, in act 1, Hyllus consulting a road map, the chorus placing “offerings” – a thermos flask, a sleeping bag, etc – into his back pack; or Dejanira ironically filing Iole’s nails in act 2. But they were also brief. On the whole, as one wit put it on a French forum, acting aside, this production was “first prize-winner in the ‘Why bother in the first place?’ category.”

But thanks to Christie, thanks to the acting and no thanks at all to the mobile phone, this was a strong evening's theatre.

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