CHICAGO — A musical drama that deals with jealousy, despair, madness and death, Handel's "Hercules" was a resounding flop when first presented in 1745.
It took nearly 200 years before this dark, disturbing work began to be recognized as one of its prolific composer's masterpieces, filled with glorious melodies and keen psychological insights.
But performances are still relatively rare, and the production that premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago on Friday night was the company's first. Happily, the Lyric did not stint: It assembled an outstanding cast, and engaged director Peter Sellars, who mounted a characteristically provocative staging that updates the action to contemporary America and reinvents its hero as a general coming home from Iraq.
Handel and librettist Thomas Broughton adapted their story from accounts of the mythological Greek hero who returns from his 12 labors to his wife, Dejanira. She has given him up for dead, but her joy at seeing him is shattered when she finds he has brought along a captive maiden, Iole, whose father he killed in battle.
Convinced that her husband is unfaithful, Dejanira schemes to regain his affection by giving him a coat treated with a centaur's blood that is said to contain magical powers. Too late, she learns the blood contains an acid, and Hercules dies in agony. Dejanira goes mad with remorse, and Handel barely manages a happy ending by having Iole marry Hyllus, the son of Hercules and Dejanira.
It's not such a stretch to transpose these characters to 21st century America. Dejanira swallows fistfuls of tranquilizers to dull her anxieties; Hercules displays the confusion and anger of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, and Iole enters wearing an orange prison suit with a black hood over her head (shades of Abu Ghraib).
The set, by George Tsypin, mixes ancient and modern elements in an odd but effective way. The stage is filled with broken Greek columns, but the characters appear in modern dress. To celebrate Hercules' return, the chorus assembles like neighbors invited over for a backyard barbecue, beer bottles in hand.
At the back of the stage, a series of screens rise and fall, pierced by irregularly shaped holes. As lit by James F. Ingalls, these first appear to be stars, but they gradually enlarge and take on more sinister form, first as shrapnel and then as red and orange rockets and warplanes.
Varying versions of the story answer differently the question of whether Hercules was really unfaithful to his wife, and Sellars seems to want to leave it in doubt. There's no ambiguity, however, as to the corrosive effect of jealousy on Dejanira. Sellars has rearranged the score so that Act 1 ends with the chorus facing the audience and admonishing: "Jealousy! Infernal pest, Tyrant of the human breast!"
As Dejanira, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sings and acts with a raw immediacy that is at times painful to watch. She moves in fits and starts, once even interrupting an aria to burst into tears. The glory of Coote's voice lies in a lower register that has a ripe and slightly acidic quality, and she uses it well to convey the character's anguish.
Soprano Lucy Crowe, in the role of Iole, gets some of Handel's most meltingly beautiful music, which she sings with ravishing purity and ease. Particularly memorable is her graphic description of her father's death ("He bleeds, he falls in agony, Dying he bites the crimson ground").
Baritone Eric Owens conveys Hercules' emotional disarray through a mixture of bluster and pathos, while tenor Richard Croft as Hyllus wins our hearts with his warm, tender sound. And it's luxury casting to have counter-tenor David Daniels in the small role of the herald, Lichas.
Harry Bicket leads the orchestra in a spirited performance that brings out the melancholy beauty of the score, as well as Handel's edgy, almost dissonant harmonies.
The next night Lyric continued its run of Wagner's "Lohengrin" with one key cast change. The role of Elsa was taken for the first time by Amber Wagner, a young American soprano who was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera's 2007 National Council Auditions and is featured in the film "The Audition."
Wagner has the resplendent voice of a budding dramatic soprano, with thrilling high notes that soar over chorus and orchestra. A slight, occasional flatness in her middle range is the only blemish on an otherwise triumphant performance.
She is a good match for tenor Johan Botha, who pours out unfailingly beautiful sounds in the title role. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster is also impressive as a conniving and sexy Ortrud. Sir Andrew Davis conducts with nice attention to detail, but his reading could use more dramatic punch.
The production, borrowed from London's Royal Opera House, is a bargain basement affair: No swan, no balcony for Elsa, no bed in the bridal chamber. That would be fine if director Elijah Moshinsky had something new to say about the work, but instead he presents a dull pageant filled with faded banners and faux-medieval stanchions.