Hercules (long, perhaps pretentious)

No time to write anything in depth (ok, I lied, this is now frighteningly long!) but I wanted to remind myself for later that Jennings and I went to see Handel's Hercules last night, courtesy of my boss. She's in Germany, and therefore unable to use her brilliant, fifth or sixth row seats.

Music of the Baroque put on a good show, as usual (and I love that I can say that--thanks to my boss, I've seen a fair number of their performances these past few years). In addition to a multitude of strings and brass, they had two harpsichords and a lutanist* (who played a normal-looking lute, and some sort of uber-lute with an inordinately long, straight neck).

There was also a great-sounding chorus, a bass-baritone (Hercules), a Mezzo-soprano (His wife, Dejanira), a Tenor (his son, Hyllus) and a Soprano (Iole, the beautiful princess that he captured and certainly never slept with. At all. Really.) Oh! And a Counter-tenor! That was impressive.

I find that I often forget how much I like stuff like this--in my head I was simultaneously looking forward to it and dreading that it would be terribly boring. It was certainly not boring, and I enjoyed it immensely. Certain sections were less exciting than others, however. If you don't know the opera, this won't mean much to you, but just so I know for the future, here's what I though about it:

I didn't care for any of Iole's bits at all, although I'm not sophisticated enough to tell precisely why. I know that I like Katya's voice a great deal, and she's also a Soprano, but Nathalie Paulin didn't really do much for me (or perhaps the fault is with Handel or, more likely, I missed some exciting subtleties). It never seemed to catch fire, catapult of the flight deck,

I liked Hyllus a great deal--especially his first aria, "I feel, I feel the god". The fact that Nicholas Phan is smoking hot didn't hurt at all, but I also think that his voice had a greater clarity and passion than the others' did. Then again, maybe he was just louder.

Nicholas Phan

I wasn't so impressed with Dejanira at first, but the "spindle and the distaff wield" aria in the second act was really fun, and it almost seemed as though the violin section was adding extra trills to her own ornamentation at one point. Then in the final act she has the hit of the show (apparently--it's just about the only except I can find on youTube, for example) "Where shall I fly". I more or less picked that link at random, but I think I may have preferred Phyllis Pancella's version last night to any I could find out there. For the final "no rest the guilty find" she hit one of these exhilarating, electrifying extremely high notes that are one real reason I like this sort of music. We let her finish the aria (which is really cool, even aside from that bit) but she had to wait for the clapping and shouting to die down before she could start the recitative that followed it.

That was it, more or less. The counter-tenor was cool, but didn't blow me away, with the exception of his beautiful, haunting recitative at the beginning of the third act--pretty much the only recitative I cared much for. Oh, and according to my notes, the way he sang "The world's avenger is no more!" the first time was also "really cool".

I feel weird writing the above, because I now have enough exposure to the world of Opera to actually know what I like in a performance I've seen, but not enough to be fully confidant that I'm not missing something. Talking about it all seems quite pretentious: my fear is that any review of an opera that I write could be summed up by me simply saying, "I liked the excitin' bits with teh drum!". And it's true, I was much less interested in the "merely pretty", calm sections.

I wasn't able to determine how Jennings felt about the opera with any specificity--as Patrick O'Brien would say, he's a deep old file. He said that he'd enjoyed it, and I think he was more interested in the technical aspects of how the composition worked than I was able to be.

One area where we disagree (and where, therefore, I'd recommend that you take his word for it!) is on the subject of lyrical repetition. The full libretto takes up less than ten pages in the program--every single word that they sing--and yet the opera was more than two-and-a-half hours long.

The singer never sang, the singers never sang, they never sang, they never sang, a single section straight through, a single section straight, single section straight, the singers never sang a section straight through. They never sang it through. He claims that not only does this make it easier to understand the words, it also serves an important technical function: unifying the vocal instruments and the orchestral ones. The lyrical repetition mirrors the musical repetition and is necessary.

I bet he's right, but it still just feels like filler to me. It's as if Handel was handed a half-hour play, and padded it out by cutting and pasting placeholder words. At the very least I feel that this is wasted space--the Ideal Artist would replace this repetition with more poetry.

Undoubtedly this would make it more difficult to understand, but so what if you have to see the piece multiple times. That's no different than a Tom Stoppard play or A Weekend in the Country. I'm not saying that Sondheim is a better artist than Handel; but I am saying that if Handel were a better artist his lyrics should be at least as complex as you can find on Broadway. And yes I know that Thomas Broughton wrote the lyrics to Hercules, but Handel's name is on the program. If he didn't approve, he should have hired some other fellow to do better. If he did approve, he should have been a better artist. On the other hand, perhaps Jennings is right and it serves a greater purpose--my version, with two hours of lyrics to match two hours of music mightn't work nearly as well.

On a similar note--and this will be the last such, I swear--I was asserting that the lyrics (even discounting the repetition) were not really "good art" in comparison to the music. You know, they're nice, and they rhyme, but they're nothing to write home about. Ironically, I went on, modern rock bands have some truly exceptional poetry (arguably) but the music itself is almost always very plain, three or four chords strummed over and over again, perhaps a riff or two, but nothing to compare to the interesting harmonies and interplay between vocal and instrument in the opera.

Jennings maintains that this is a necessary tradeoff--that if any audience had to take in lyrical and aural complexities at the same time it wouldn't be Art but simply mush. Again, I'm not so sure--I don't think that the end of A Weekend in the Country is mush, even though the words are almost lost in the counterpoint and it does get a bit chaotic at then end. I think I need better examples. I think I need to go dancing. Good night!

*Yep, that's right, I said lutanist. Learn something new every day!

Things I love about this post:
1) "uber-lute"
2) "Nicholas Phan is smoking hot"
3) "a deep old file"
Mostly I agree with what Jennings said, or at least what you said Jennings said.

This repetitiveness and simplicity of poetry is a good part of why I really dislike Baroque music. The music is pretty, for a while, but the repetitive nature makes me bored very quickly.

I am not sure that comparing Sondheim and Handel is fair, however. Handel was a genius, but a genius who was a product of his time. Tastes were different, and really, Handel was writing for the people of his time, never expecting that we would still be performing his works today. Fairer to compare him to Bach or even to composers of the eras ajacent to his, such as Haydn or Glück, Palestrina or Monteverdi.

Fairer to compare Sondheim (the 20th century musical theatre composer) instead to Menotti or Barber or Britten, all english speaking 20th century opera composers.