Georg Friedrich Händel 1685–1759
Oratorio in three acts
Libretto by Thomas Broughton
First performed January 5 1745, King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London
Sung in English with German & English surtitles
Introductory talks (in German) in the Holzfoyer 30 mins before performances begin and available here on video shortly before opening night
She’s waiting for her husband to come back from war. When he does, her jealousy ruins everything.
As so often in Handel’s dramatic works the central character here is a woman, Dejanira, who’s plagued by pathological jealousy. She’s terrified that her husband Hercules won’t come back from war. Her joy of life returns when he does, but doesn’t last long because Princess Iole, whose father was killed by Hercules, is a member of his retinue. Dejanira projects all her fears onto Iole. Her unfounded jealousy and self-destructive determination grow. She has a cloak, said to possess magical powers, taken to her husband to rekindle their supposedly lost love. But things go badly wrong: the cloak, which bursts into flames, turns out to be poisoned, and Hercules burns alive. Dejanira knows she did wrong. Handel created a closing mad scene for her, the largest in scale in the history of music, and an expressively drawn portrait of a modern woman.
Librettist Thomas Broughton drew on ideas from several poems about Hercules’ death while drawing up his own version, bringing the innocence of those involved and the terrible consequences of their entanglements to the fore. Although published as an oratorio, the work defies classification. It’s more like a piece of music theatre which, unable to compete with spectacular operatic effects on stage or the religious pretensions of oratorio, was not very well received. So Hercules marked a climax in Handel’s dramatic output and a low in his career as an impresario.