What can an opera, whose composer died over 250 years ago, teach us about human suffering? Or what can a famous Greek playwright, who lived 25 centuries ago, say about modern warfare, long before the advent of guns, bombs and weapons of mass destruction?
Quite a lot it appears when Sophocles’ play, “Women of Trachis,” and George Friedric Handel’s oratorio, “Hercules,” are filtered through the brilliantly inventive mind of director Peter Sellars in his latest Lyric Opera collaboration.
Sellars has said that he wanted to depict the universality of wartime suffering, both on the battlefield warriors and those left behind on the home front. To that end, he has cut-and-pasted a modern libretto for this contemporary staging, aimed at underlining stark parallels between ancient Greece and America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unlike his 2007 Lyric production of “Doctor Atomic,” where he over-reached in his attempt to critique the Faustian legacy of the atom bomb, Sellars triumphs this time out with a vocally rich, emotionally-charged production.
The casting of Eric Owens as Hercules, the gifted dramatic mezzo Alice Coote as Dejanira, Hercules’ wife, and countertenor David Daniels as Lichas, the court herald, was near ideal. However, the evening’s hosannas belong to Iole, the captured prisoner, sung by Lucy Crowe.
(Lyric, in its mail brochure, focused all its attention on the three leading stars and bypassed any mention of the night’s star with her pure tone and ardent delivery that merited several well-earned bravos.)
The story was spare, relative to its 3 ½ hour length. Sellars’ Hercules is portrayed less as the world’s strongest man but a general in full body armor, just returned from his most recent conquest to a hero’s welcome and his wife’s joyful relief.
Yet Hercules is a changed man returned to an alien world. He is shut down, refusing to talk about the war, what he has seen or how many he has killed. For Sellars, Hercules’ plight is like the experience of so many veterans of our current wars. He keeps the war inside where it still rages, until it explodes in post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence or possibly suicide.
The opera’s mood changes very soon after the opening curtain when we learn that Hercules has brought home a war trophy, the lovely Princess Iole, who is dragged on stage with her face masked and wearing an orange jumpsuit, evoking disturbing memories of Abu Ghraib.
Hercules is captivated by her but Dejanira is aflame with jealousy over having to share her home with this stranger and rival. Ironically, as a result of Sellar’s reworking, the destructive love triangle between Hercules, Dejanira and Iole is underplayed and almost non-existent in the production. Iole is barely seen in Hercules’ company at all but is wooed with greater success by Hyllus, his son.
Iole reaches out to make peace with Dejanira but is rejected. In her attempt to win back Hercules’ love, she unwittingly kills him and commits suicide when her plan for reconciliation goes horribly awry.
Sellars gives Hercules a hero’s flag-draped funeral complete with honor guard, despite his dying wish in Handel’s version to be buried on Mt. Olympus, home of the gods.
Opera purists may rankle at the extensive cuts and liberties Sellars has taken with Sophocles and Handel. Yet, “Hercules” succeeds brilliantly in depicting the cruel wages of war and ends Lyric’s 2010-11 season on a richly-satisfying high note.
Only two performances remain to catch “Hercules”. For dates and tickets, go to www.LyricOpera.org.