Georg Friedrich Händel 1685–1759
Music Drama in 3 acts
Texts by Thomas Broughton
First performed January 5 1745, King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London
A co-production with the Komische Oper Berlin
Sung in English with German & English surtitles
Introductory talks (in German) in the Holzfoyer 30 mins before performances begin and on video (see above)
Dejanira, wife of Hercules, King of Thrace, bemoans her husband’s long absence at war. Her son Hyllus relays the oracle’s sombre prophesy: Hercules will die. Dejanira fears she’ll only see her husband again in the land of the dead. Hyllus decides to look for his father. Hercules' sister Lichas announces her brother’s victory. He returns with a number of prisoners, including Princess Iole, daughter of King of the Oechalians, whom he killed. Hercules rules that Iole may move freely in Trachin, but she’s inconsolable, mourning the loss of her father and home. Hercules swears to lay down his weapons forever, looking forward to his wife’s love. But Dejanira’s consumed by jealousy: She thinks he only attacked and destroyed Oechalia to win Iole. Iole adamantly refutes this assertion. Lichas tries in vain to rid Dejanira of her tormenting thoughts, but she remains convinced of her husband’s infidelity. Part 2 Hyllus has fallen in love with Iole, but she spurns the son of the man who killed her father and destroyed her homeland. Before Hercules leaves for the victory celebrations, Dejanira accuses him of being unfaithful. He denies her accusation and begs her to forget her groundless jealousy. In her desperation she remembers a garment the centaur Nessos gave her after Hercules fatally wounded him. Nessos promised that the shirt soaked in his blood would rekindle extinguished love. Dejanira has Lichas deliver the shirt to Hercules as a gift of reconciliation. Convinced that her husband will now be hers again, Dejanira asks Iole to forgive her. Lichas tells how Hercules took the shirt from Dejanira during the sacrificial ceremony, and put it on: the heat from the fire on the altar made the poison in the robe melt and flow into his body. Hercules collapsed trying to tear the deadly material from his body. In infernal torment Hercules blamed his wife and asked Hyllus to take his body to the top of mount Oeta and burn it on a funeral pyre. Horrified at having carried out Nessos` revenge Dejanira, delirious, sees her guilty soul hounded by Furies. Iole feels sorry for Hercules’ family, despite her own misfortunes. Jupiter’s priests proclaim that an eagle took Hercules’ body from the pyre and flew up to Heaven with it, where he now resides with the Gods. It is Jupiter’s wish that Hyllus marry Iole.
She waits impatiently 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.