Here the soloists, chorus members and conductor at the Frankfurt Opera are taking their bows at the end of a staged performance of Hercules, by Georg Friedrich Händel, in 2023. (That’s a statue of Hercules in the background.)
In the HWV-catalogue of Händel’s works (HWV = Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis in German), Hercules has the number HWV 60, meaning it is classified as an oratorio, not as an opera.
In the program booklet, the stage director Barrie Kosky is quoted as saying: “Handel’s oratorios were not originally created for the stage. In my opinion, however, they are much more dramatic than his operas. The operas at that time were mainly made for lovers of the voice. People went to the performance to marvel at the new castrati and great coloraturas; one aria followed the next. The oratorios are very different.”
What Händel’s oratorios all have in common is that their texts are in English, not Italian. His best-known oratorios, such as the Messiah (HWV 56) have biblical themes, but a few others, like Hercules and Semele, are based on stories from ancient Greek mythology.
Although Hercules, the king of Thrace, is the title figure of this oratorio, the central figure is his wife Dejanira, played and sung in Frankfurt by former ensemble member Paula Murrihy.
At the beginning, Dejanira bemoans her husband’s long absence at war, and fears that she will never see him again. In this, she resembles Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, — a role that was also played in Frankfurt by Paula Murrihy, in 2019, in the opera Penelope by Gabriel Fauré.
But unlike Odysseus, who returns home alone and unrecognized, Hercules returns victorious from his war and brings numerous prisoners with him, including Princess Iole, the daughter of the enemy king who was killed by Hercules in battle.
Dejanira immediately suspects that her husband has been unfaithful to her with Iole, although (in Händel’s version of the story) there is no indication that this is true.
The other characters all try to convince Dejanira that her jealousy is groundless — it is her son, not her husband, who is in love with Iole — but she doesn’t believe them, and works herself up into a classic mad scene, ninety years before Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
My photos and text in this post are from 2023.
See more posts on the composer Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759).