Review / Powerful ‘Hercules’ rises to the task

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HANDEL’S doomed love story “Hercules” was given its second ever major Australian performance by Canberra Choral Society on Saturday night.

Curtain Call, photographer Hou Leong
Curtain Call, photographer Hou Leong
With only a desk, painting and altar for props, soloists Christopher Richardson (Hercules), Christina Wilson (Dejanira), Janet Todd (Iöle), Jacob Lawrence (Hyllus), Andrew Fysh (Priest) and Katie Cole (Lichas) presented a dramatised version of this oratorio, overturning the tired convention of chaining singers to their music stands for oratorio.

Alongside contemporary costumes, light projections and acted roles, Canberra Choral Society’s “Hercules” used limited resources to great dramatic effect. One such example was when the choristers carried their chairs from the stage after hearing of the death of Hercules — and when they returned, surrounding the audience on both sides, for the jubilant final chorus “To Him Your Grateful Notes”.

Dejanira (Christina Wilson) photographer Hou Leong
Dejanira (Christina Wilson) photographer Hou Leong
Light projections were also used to build atmosphere, particularly in the slower first Act, and sometimes functioned as a kind of voiceless Greek chorus—bathing the stage green during the warning chorus “Jealousy, Tyrant of the Human Breast”.

Of the soloists, Katie Cole was particularly impressive, having stepped into the role of Lichas at the eleventh hour to replace Tobias Cole who had fallen ill. Her Lichas was evoked through a light contralto in the Baroque style, almost senza vibrato, and tasteful ornamentation.

Dejanira (Christina Wilson) and Hercules (Christopher Richardson) - photographer Hou Leong
Dejanira (Christina Wilson) and Hercules (Christopher Richardson) – photographer Hou Leong
The role of Dejanira, the high-maintenance wife of Hercules, was brought to life by Wilson whose coloratura mezzo-soprano voice was well suited to Handel’s mellismatic writing. Wilson’s Act two Aria “Resign thy club and lion’s spoils” was particularly beautiful with its elegantly controlled phrases. Dramatically stiff in the first Act, Wilson was utterly compelling by her frantic accompagnato “Where shall I fly” in Act 2.

The primo uomo role of Hercules was realised by Richardson’s firm and secure Bass voice, resonant even in the most acrobatic passages — the Act 2 Aria “Alcides’ Name in Latest Story”, for example.

Lawrence, as Hyllus, the denim-wearing hipster son of Hercules, gave one of the stronger performances of the evening. His Act 2 Aria “From Celestial Seats Descending” was impressive with its sure navigation of rapid ornamented passages. Departing from the tradition of wooden classical singers (think Joan Sutherland in Traviata) Lawrence’s acting skills fleshed out Hyllus as a fluid and plausible character.

Iole (Janet Todd) with Katie Cole as Lichas in background, -photographer Hou Leong [S0275052]
Iole (Janet Todd) with Katie Cole as Lichas in background, -photographer Hou Leong
Another highly commendable performance was given by lyric soprano Todd in her role of the captured princess Iöle. Todd’s poignant top notes floated effortlessly across the Playhouse during her Act 1 tribute to her slain father “My father! Ah! Methinks I See”.

Even a tiny role can make a big impact, and Fysh’s appearance at the end of Act 2 as the Priest of Jupiter did exactly that. Following the hideous death of Hercules and Dejanira’s descent into madness, the priest (Fysh) pours legato on troubled waters with his news that Hercules has miraculously ascended to Olympus with the gods.

Even given the high calibre of all soloists, the shining star of this performance was undoubtedly the choir. Always perfectly balanced, CCS Chorus and CCS New Voices demonstrated great versatility across a broad range of dynamics and colour. Like the soloists, this mixed choir performed entirely from memory. Conductor Brett Weymark directed both the choir and Baroque ensemble demonstrating a nuanced, refined understanding of the Baroque style and of Handel’s harmonic language.

Tobias Cole is to be commended not only for his artistic direction, but also for his elegant use of resources — the Canberra Choral Society Baroque Ensemble, led by Bianca Porcheddu, punched well above their weight. Too small to be a chamber orchestra, this ensemble produced an enormous sound and were particularly impressive in the instrumental sinfonia in Act 2. This sinfonia was given emotional gravitas through a fantasia-like approach to meter. It was such a breath of fresh air to hear Baroque music liberated from dusty conservatorium performance practice—Handel himself would have danced in the Playhouse aisles to hear his sinfonia played so expressively.

 

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