Cher Public

Shirt tale

Among symbolic classical tropes, one of my favorites (perhaps because only another classicist will understand it) is Nessus’ Shirt, an emblem of glory (a promotion, say, or an expensive luxury) that destroys you.

Nessus was a horny centaur who ferried humans across a river. Hercules crossed on his own with the luggage, but his wife, Dejanira, was entrusted to Nessus – who, after the manner of centaurs, attempted to run off with her. Hearing her cries for help, Hercules whipped out his famous bow and mortally wounded the centaur – his arrows, you may recall, had been dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernean Hydra way back in Labor Number Two.

Dying, Nessus told Dejanira that his blood would be a charm to revive dying love. She believed him, which shows that she was already an insecure woman, and kept a vial of the stuff. When Hercules conquered Oechalia  taking its lovely princess, Iole, as a prize of war, Dejanira sent him an ornamental robe anointed with Nessus’ blood. The hydra venom burned the hero alive.

Hence: Nessus’ Shirt. Sophocles made this story into a tragedy, The Women of Trachis, and Handel turned the play into one of his secular oratorios – which is to say, an opera in English, with a chorus but no scenery. The idea of staging Handel’s version is comparatively recent but has proved irresistible.

Peter Sellars’ staging of Hercules for Lyric Opera of Chicago, as he made clear in a pre-performance lecture, was based on contemporary events, on the experiences of veterans coming home from foreign wars to the confusions and misadjustments of civilian family life. On George Tsypin’s unit set of broken columns and scattered boulders, against an ingenious backdrop of subtly flickering starry skies that turn red as the story turns lurid (the lighting is by James F. Ingalls), the tale plays out in modern dress (by Dunya Ramicova) with accents pointed at the wars of the twenty-first century: The captive princess is brought in hooded, handcuffed, in an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit; the neighbors who rejoice at the conqueror’s return reappear to mourn his loss with the women in headscarves.

The stars twist and the boulders glow like coals for Dejanira’s mad scene, but in the end – in a major miscalculation – Sellars has the soldiers and the neighbors embrace her, accepting her whimsically murderous ways. There, there – she’s sorry – it was a mistake that might happen to anyone. No one’s even angry at her. (In Sophocles, her son, Hyllus, wants to kill her and is only forestalled by her suicide.)

Sellars is so enamored of his take on the tale, of the resonance of stories of mental disorder among veterans, that he ignores Hercules’s willfullness in making the war in question: He was no draftee but a contract killer, never happy without a war to fight or a labor to perform. Too, though he is the title character, he is far from its most important figure. This is the homefront tale of Dejanira, who well knows her husband’s wandering eye. Aside from Dejanira’s jealousy, Handel’s drama never confronts the changes war might have wrought in its participants. Sellars’ vision has led him to make substantial cuts in the score, of a chorus or two (a pity – Handel choruses are always sublime, and at LOC are gorgeously sung) , and of half the music of the herald, Lichas, a frequent commentator on the action.

David Daniels has undertaken this part, and though he sings the climactic “Ye sons of Trachin, mourn your valiant chief” with fervor enough to justify his casting, still, one misses the range he has brought to other roles or to this one in concert performances. Too, the cuts leave him with no character to play other than, evidently, Dejanira’s sassy gay friend.

Dejanira is sung by Alice Coote, whose dramatic range and vocal ability fully justify the choice. Dejanira must turn from grief to joy to nervous jealousy to bitter reproach to conniving to maddened remorse in quick succession, and Coote’s ardor, controlled passion and self-questioning horror were all on display. She colors words deftly and ornaments with discretion and point with an instrument of striking beauty.

Handel bestowed five arias and two duets on Iole, the more or less innocent cause of the disaster, a silent role in Sophocles. Sellars retained all of her role but one duet, both to highlight the plight of prisoners of war and, I suspect, to display Lucy Crowe’s gleaming soprano. She may be the only singer who gets all her da capos, and if this shifts the weight of the drama a bit, it is difficult not to delight in so cool, bright, animated a sound, ringing but intimate, in the vast spaces of Chicago’s enormous, gaudy opera house.

Richard Croft, a tenor with much excellent work in the Handelian field under his belt, sings Hyllus, the adolescent son of Hercules and Dejanira, a near-Orestes in Sophocles, a bit of a stick in Handel. Croft’s voice seems to be deepening in the lower registers (could this be due to his Loge at the Met?), and there were notes that verged on the baritonal in color. Too, once or twice, he either got lost following the conductor, or the conductor lost him – which I set down to opening night confusion.

Eric Owens made an impressive stage figure as a fatigue-clad Hercules and his agonies  during his death scene were heroic, but his voice lacked the brilliance of a Handelian bass of the first water and he mangled the necessary passagework. Alone of the cast, he is not a baroque specialist and, alas, he sounded very much out of his fach.

A reduced opera orchestra played in sprightly fashion, but Harry Bicket seemed to need more rehearsal time – Croft was not the only singer who occasionally sang a phrase to the wrong accompaniment. The chorus of friends and neighbors performed the sort of hand jive Sellars devised for his Glyndebourne Theodora (which included Daniels and Croft among its singers). The gestures seemed more of a piece with that work’s devotional intent; here, reduced to odd moments of the score when nothing else was being mimed, they seemed like intrusive filler, a failure of the Sellars imagination.

This was a satisfying performance of a worthy work by worthy musicians, and my reservations were not serious enough to keep me from contemplating going again and hoping for equal performances from most, a better one from Mr. Owens. If you go to a Sellars staging, there will always be some perversity or distraction, but the musical values may be enough to allow you to overlook them. I felt frustrated that (whose idea was this?) the singers were not permitted solo bows at the end of the evening, but only received plaudits in sync with the rest. The two ladies, in particular, deserved solo appreciation.

(Photo: Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago)