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Handel: Hercules

Barbican Theatre
15th March 2006

The Barbican Theatre has proved a valuable venue for visiting opera and William Christie knows it well. His approach to Handel's score was vibrant and constantly stimulating, with highly sensitive use of a range of continuo instruments, and exemplary playing from Benoit Hartoin at the harpsichord and chamber organ. Tempi throughout a long evening were brisk, but never rushed, with the dramatic impact of the score given real bite.

Vocal standards were high, though Ingela Bohlin as Iole had to mime the part due to a throat infection while Hannah Bayodi sang from the pit. On the evidence of this one performance she should not remain much longer in the chorus! In many ways Iole is the key to the work a precursor to Iphis in Jephtha - and given some of Handel's most beautiful melodies. Hannah Bayodi impressed with her innocence and delicacy of line while having little difficulty with the coloratura.

Ed Lyon was an introspective Hyllus and Katija Dragojevic a positive Lichas. As Hercules, William Shimell epitomised masculine self-satisfaction, more concerned with the adulation of the crowd than of his wife's concerns, and sang with uncommon virility. Joyce DiDonato ran the emotional gauntlet as Dejanira, emotionally effective while always musically secure.

The chorus sang very well but it was here I had difficulties with the production. I have no problem with staging Handel's oratorios and we have had many brilliant examples of their effectiveness. However all was not well with Luc Bondy's approach. The concrete bunker in which the action is set looked better in the Paris photos where it was almost twice as wide. Though the Barbican stage is quite large the set seemed cramped and over high. While soloists frequently found poetic truth in their interaction, the chorus looked lost throughout, frequently reduced to wandering about and giving each other knowing looks. It was often unclear who they were singing to, or where the focus of their attention was supposed to be. The production looked tired, and comparing it afterwards to the recently released Paris DVD I was struck by how much more alive the DVD performance was compared with the 'live' Barbican presentation.

BH