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American Record Guide, September 2008

Record companies (and, one hopes, the public) are finally beginning to discover and nurture the glories of this masterpiece. Taken together, Semele (1744) and Hercules (1745) are Handel's great contributions to English opera. There, I said it! These are English operas-the only really important ones between Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Britten's Peter Grimes (unless you count the "Savoy operas" of Gilbert and Sullivan). Handel may have called it "a musical drama", and (as with Semele) not staged it. But it is baroque opera of the highest order, with a leading female role (Dejanira) that mezzos are only beginning to realize they should sell their souls for.

…This is only the sixth audio recording of the score…Martini's is an altogether worthy addition to the list. It is also the sixth Handel oratorio that he has recorded for Naxos (along with two of John Christopher Smith's Handel pastiches), a procession that has shown him an accomplished Handelian.

Martini has put together a very solid cast. ..The best-known singer here, of course, will be the Hercules, whom we have long known as bass Peter Kooy but whose name is given here in ultra-Dutch form as Kooij. However you spell him, he is a commanding singer, despite just a whiff of accent, and his death scene is quite powerful. Tenor Schoch is an ardent Hyllus, and Samann uses her light and pretty voice to make a believably girlish but tragic character. The surprise is the Scottish mezzo Wemyss, who makes a slow start in becoming the jealous wife but grows in the part, through her self-fueled frenzies, and is truly gripping in her great monolog of guilt and despair.

Generally, for a recording made at an actual concert (only applause at the end makes the fact clear), this is a good one, excellently displaying the soloists. The chorus is a bit distant, not helping its diction, but it sings well, and the orchestra is solid.

So this is a very satisfying and enjoyable presentation of this great work.

Mark Sealey
MusicWeb International, June 2008

Handel wrote Hercules towards the end his composing career, in 1745, when he had chosen to concentrate on oratorio rather than opera – probably as much for commercial reasons as any other. It was not a success: the withdrawal of at least one principle, audience indifference and a general run of theatrical bad luck meant it received few, and undistinguished, performances. Even when revived seven years later, Hercules didn’t seem to inspire its London audiences. It’s generally acknowledged not only that Handel’s entrepreneurial drive had flagged by this time, but also that public taste was moving on.

What’s more, Hercules has neither the strong religious component nor the spectacle of Italian opera. Its libretto is by Thomas Broughton of Salisbury drawing on Sophocles’ Trachiniae, Senecca’s Hercules Oetaeus and the Metamorphoses. His construction, one that Handel built on with outstanding skills and sensitivities, was more akin to musical drama. That was, indeed, how Hercules was actually first billed – a drama per musica with ‘acts’ rather than ‘parts’. The chief theme is jealousy; there is much scope for some fine singing to ‘illustrate’ the inevitable tensions that surround that emotion.

We’re now lucky to have this stylish and accomplished performance from a cast of singers and players well-versed in the idiom and who provide a clear, compelling and simple account; it’s full of punch, nuance and consistency in equal measure. The articulation of the English libretto is particularly pleasing, although that is further supplemented by dramatic insight from all the principles. Nicola Wemyss (Dejanira) navigates her way through Begone, my fears [CD1 tr.15] with grace and deftness – yet doesn’t overlook the implicit depths of feeling. Exemplary.

Hercules is the stock hero – off at war (for the last time, he hopes) at the beginning of Act I; he has captured the beautiful Iöle, of whom Hercules’ wife, Dejanira, is instantly jealous. Iöle repels the advances of Hyllus, not least because he killed her father. The work may be thought to have reached its conclusion, if one without climax, at the end of Act II when Dejanira’s jealousy is dispelled and Iöle is to be set free. But the melodramatic episode of Hercules’ death (burnt by the poison on the robe his wife used to assure herself of his fidelity) and eventual immolation take up Act 3. Things nevertheless end happily (for some) with the marriage of Iöle and Hyllus.

The human drama in this really quite simple set of dilemmas and struggles relies on the music to make its impact; Handel certainly devoted much thought to conveying as forcefully as needed the subtleties of apology (Dejanira for doubting Hercules’ fidelity), acceptance of originally rejected love (Iöle’s for Hyllus) and regret (almost everyone has something to lament). It’s generally felt he succeeded admirably and that Hercules is one of his better oratorios. There are five current complete recordings in the catalogue.

The strongest competitive recording is undoubtedly that by Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre on Archiv (4695322). That remains a classic, and something of a benchmark so the singing, playing and theatrical and musical direction on the current release would have had to be extraordinary to better it. They aren’t,– but they are very good indeed and full of life and integrity. There really is much to enjoy here. In particular, the seemingly effortless strength used to convey character… there is control and conviction in the singing of an aria like Hyllus Where congeal’d the northern streams [CD1 tr.12] that’s well-supported by the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra’s strings. It really zings along into the following chorus, O filial piety.

The booklet that comes with this three-CD set is rather sparse: a short essay with more general background than focus on Hercules itself; a synopsis of the plot in English and German; and short resumés of the singers only, in English. So this may not be your first choice. But Naxos has done the work proud with this crystalline conception and execution of one of Handel’s last oratorios from confident performers who are obviously enjoying everything there is to enjoy in its uplifting and extrovert score.

This performance – a live recording – has pace, vibrancy and delicacy. But it’s the sense of energy and delight in making this music that will probably remain with you on repeated listenings.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2008

Handel’s Hercules contained some of his finest dramatic writing, though in his lifetime it was an unqualified failure.

We tend to look back on Handel as having enjoyed a distinguished life as an English composer following his arrival in London, but closer inspection reveals a life littered with downfalls. Hercules was intended to be one of the highlights of a season Handel had booked at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket in 1744, but for a number of reasons it was a fiasco on the opening night and the second performance failed to draw an audience. It was such a disaster that Handel cancelled the rest of the Haymarket season. Undeterred he scheduled three performances seven years later in 1752, but again it again failed to please anyone. At almost three hours it is a grossly overblown score, with so much padding that any sensible composer would have hacked it out before its revival. Strangely the conductor of this new recording, Joachim Carlos Martini, decides to concentrate on the lyrical moments allowing the dramatic ones will look after themselves. Though we have not the slightest idea of the vocal style of the period, he brings an element of period authenticity with the help of the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra. Vocally he has some reliable singers: Franz Vitzthum’s sweet-toned countertenor is heard to good effect as Lichas, with a bright and young voice from Gerlinde Samann as Iole, her handling of the demanding florid writing in such arias as Ah! Think what ills the jealous prove showing commendable virtuosity. The much experienced Peter Kooij makes a resolute Hercules, but the downside is the use of a largely German cast for an English language work. Much of the time they could be singing in any language, the problem compounded by a lack of words in the accompanying booklet. The Junge Kantorei perform with their usual enthusiasm, and the recording engineers have achieved very good balance between singers and instruments. Not ideal, but as a rarity and at super-budget price it is well worth hearing.

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