Tragedy asks: what destroys us? Hercules, like Othello, answers: jealousy. When her husband Hercules (David le Prevost) returns from war with captive princess Iole (Tara Mansfield) in tow, Dejanira (Johanna Harrison) falls prey to the green-eyed monster. This triggers a deadly chain of events which drags our flawed heroes through deception, love, and guilt to a bloody conclusion.
I admit, on heading off to preview an opera, I was sceptical. Not because I don’t like opera, but because good productions of operas are hard to come by. The trap into which many of them fall – professional ones often being the worst offenders – is that of placing musical virtuosity above the effect of the show on stage. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sometimes left an opera wondering why they didn’t just put on a concert instead.
To my relief and delight, Hercules isn’t like that at all. Each member of the small cast delivers a nuanced performance, doing their best to bring sympathetic, believable characters out of a libretto often marred by melodrama. In particular, Johanna Harrison’ tortured Dejanira and Tara Mansfield’s dynamic Iole will capture – and break – hearts. The human conflict of the piece is what shines through in this production, which makes it equally enjoyable for soap opera enthusiasts, theatre fans, or any one of us who’s been a confidant for a friend with a cheating boyfriend (a role played credibly by Edward Edgcumbe as Lichas).
Opera traditionalists will find plenty to enjoy too. From the eponymous Hercules’ heroic bass through to the powerful tenor of Hyllus (Andrew Hayman), the cast give solid vocal performances. The score is expressive, musically masterful, and, performed with a full orchestra featuring two harpsichords, it will delight any lover of the Baroque. And not forgetting that beloved standard of tragic opera: Hercules has a mad scene to rival Lucia di Lammermoor – if not in soaring vocal acrobatics, then certainly in passion.
To add to the atmosphere, the performances will be in the splendid surroundings of St. John the Evangelist Church on Iffley Road. Since the opera itself is a resetting of a heroic classical drama about the deification of Hercules and his emergence into the domestic sphere, the choice of setting is a pleasing nod to the roots of the piece. We are also promised that it will be ideal for technically complex lighting effects and powerful staging. Even in unpolished form in a rehearsal room, though, Hercules was a tear-jerker. I can’t wait to see the final product.
Running the gamut from sordid to sublime, with gruesome undertones of revenge worthy of a Tarantino film, this is an exciting and emotive production. If you like your domestic discord histrionic with a side helping of deification and dramatic death, Hercules will not disappoint.
Hercules is being performed at the church of St. John the Evangelist on Iffley Road from the 21st to the 23rd November by Oxford Opera company.