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A fine, if incomplete, performance

Koerner Hall
01/19/2012 -  and January 20, 21, 22, 2012
George Frideric Handel: Hercules
Sumner Thompson (Hercules), Allyson McHardy (Dejanira), Nathalie Paulin (Iöle), Colin Balzer (Hyllus), Laura Pudwell (Lichas), David Roth (Priest of Jupiter), Members of Atelier Ballet
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Jeanne Lamon (Conductor)
Marshall Pynkoski (Stage Direction), Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg (Choreography), Raha Javanfar (Lighting)

J. Lamon (© Dean Macdonnell)

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its artistic director, Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has fulfilled a long-held desire and performed Handel’s “Musical Drama” of 1745, Hercules.

The venue for this special set of performances is Koerner Hall (capacity over 1000), just a few blocks from the orchestra’s usual venue, the Trinity-St Paul Centre, a church seating about 770. Handel’s drama, originally presented in oratorio form, is semi-staged under the direction of Marshall Pynkoski, co-director of Opera Atelier which in recent years has employed the Taflemusik Orchestra (very successfully!) as its pit band.

The work has its challenges, especially on the dramatic side of things. The story is relatively straightforward (especially when compared with the convoluted entanglements in so many opera seria plots), dealing with the return of Hercules from war to his wife, Dejanira and son, Hyllus. The complicating factor is Iöle, a captive princess who excites Dejanira’s jealousy and with whom Hyllus falls in love. Dejanira gives Hercules a cloak that supposedly has magic powers that will restore his love for her, but instead it results in his agonizing death.

Perhaps the major problem presented by the score is that it contains a surfeit of plaintive recitatives and arias. Dejanira and her son at first express longing for the return of Hercules. Once he returns, the wife is apprehensive about the presence of the other woman (who in turn expresses her grief in captivity), and Hyllus is sad that his love for Iöle is not returned. A herald, Lichas, observes all this a tells us how sad everyone is: “See, with what sad dejection in her looks, indulging grief, the mournful princess sits” are the opening lines of the work and they almost sum up the entire piece. Every expression of a character’s mood is accompanied by an appropriate aria - thus the plot moves along at a snail’s pace. Another problem arises from the fact that for its unsuccessful premiere Handel padded out the role of the herald for a favourite singer. As a result, the character often ends up redundantly describing (in oratorio fashion) action that we are about to witness.

I am familiar with three complete recordings of the work, one dating from 1967 (under Brian Priestman), one from 1983 (John Eliot Gardiner) and one from 2002 (Marc Minkoski). All present the work complete, but I suspect that, like Shakespeare’s plays, it is rarely staged complete. I saw a production in 2011 at the Chicago Lyric Opera with Peter Sellars directing an excellent cast, and there were some cuts made then. This production, however, makes draconian cuts, most grievously in Act II where a full 25-minute section goes missing. We lose much of the exchange between the wooing Hyllus and the unresponsive Iöle and, most important of all, Dejanira’s address to Hercules “Resign thy club and lion’s spoils”, a singular and riveting aria in Handel’s vast output. The main reason for the ongoing Handelian revival is that his melodies at their frequent best illustrate vividly his characters’ shifting moods; the complicated cross-rhythms of “Resign thy club” perfectly echo Dajinera’s conflicting emotions, some of which she might be not fully aware of.

Another small cut occurs where Dajinira orders Hyllus to deliver the fatal garment to his father, thus losing a chance for a dramatic moment in a work that has a paucity of them. It would have been good as well to have shown us the fatal garment, the one object that plays a central role.

In spite of the startling cuts, the musical side of the performance is totally fine. Conductor Jeanne Lamon (who also performs lead violin) and her 30-member orchestra are masters of the idiom; pacing and balances are ideal. The singers are all well-chosen and the whole piece brims with musical and dramatic nous.

Allyson McHardy ably captures Dejanira; I’m sure she would have truly seized the moment in that sadly missing big aria. One looks forward to her upcoming performance as Juno in Semele (Handel’s other opera-posing-as-an-oratorio) with the Canadian Opera Company. Equally adept is Nathalie Paulin as the reluctant “other woman”. The duet between the two women is a delight, as is the duet between Iöle and Hyllus. With his youthful, expressive voice Colin Balzer is ideal in the role of the lovelorn son. It’s a real pity his role was shortened so much. (Sorry to keep mentioning that.)

If Sumner Thompson sounds a bit gruff in the title role, well, that is just how it’s composed. Laura Pudwell as Lichas was a late addition to the cast and she is fully up to her usual high standard. David Roth in the brief deus ex machina role near the end sings from the chorus; his brief lines announce important information that doesn’t quite come across.

The language of the piece is English, but is poetically antique to a degree that creates a barrier to full understanding. No titles are projected (a difficulty in a hall with 360-degree seating). The printed program has the text for the version performed, but the lights are lowered thus preventing us from reading it.

The 22-member Tafelmusik Chamber Choir (also observing its 30th anniversary) sounds up to its usual high standard as well. Six members of the Atelier Ballet periodically provide a welcome dashing element to the proceedings.

At the end of the opening night performance the Orchestra’s chair announced that the organization is launching its own record label under the name Tafelmusik Media. The orchestra has made some 65 recordings on several labels, notably Sony Classical, and several of the earlier recordings are being reissued on the new label. The website is to feature a digital concert hall with live broadcasts and podcasts.

Michael Johnson



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