When Peter Sellars was commissioned to reprise his 2011 production of Handel’s Hercules for the Canadian Opera Company, I expected the effect to be politically charged and minimalist. After all, Sellars is famed for his radically comprehensive transformations of classical and contemporary operas. Setting Hercules in a partially devastated American base in postwar Iraq seemed a promising start, what could be more apt for a barbed exploration of American imperialist hubris? Disappointingly, despite every hint at a renewed, radical narrative on America’s fraught relationship with the Middle East, last night’s production promised much, but delivered little.
Hercules tells the tale of the returning hero, Hercules, and Dejanira his wife, who tragically misunderstands her husband’s preoccupation with his captive princess, Iole, as proof of infidelity. In an effort to win back his love, Dejanira presents Hercules with a poisoned robe which she mistakenly believes is magically capable of restoring his passion. Hercules dies a fiery death, consumed by the poison of the Hydra that tears his flesh from his bones.
In Sellars’ re-visioning, Hercules is an American General, returning after a tour of duty to Dejanira (her name distractingly pronounced with a hard “j” throughout the production). He brings with him the beautiful Iole, the captive princess of Oechalia. Iole’s aria “Daughter of gods, bright liberty!” was really the only moment in the whole opera where tragedy fused with political vision to bring us transformative theater. Iole is thrown on stage, dressed in an orange prison uniform, with a black bag tied over her head. As she sings in darkness to “bright liberty,”she is kicked by a heavily armed soldier wielding a combat rifle. As Lucy Crowe’s incomparable Iole pleads tragically for divine intervention, our minds revisit the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib, chilled by the implications that this tableau represents.
But the political subtext of American imperialism (or intervention) in Iraq was barely developed beyond this scene. Confusing set and design choices made it impossible to understand the relationship between captors and captives, Americans and Iraqis. For example, a chorus of women in jewel-toned pseudo-Greco tunics cavort with American soldiers at the end of Part 1. They return at the end of the opera, in headscarves, to sing Hercules’ elegy. Are these women Greek? American? Iraqi? If they are Iraqi, what does Sellars, and costume designer Dunya Ramicova, suggest, when this production would have them drinking, partying, and cozying up with American soldiers?
Likewise, the captive Iole finds solace and dignity in the arms of Hyllus, the son of Hercules, only to have him attempt to throttle her to death a few scenes later. Then, inexplicably, Hyllus and Iole walk out arm-in-arm for the final scene, the paragon of a multiracial couple uniting political enemies. The story of Iole, which stands as a corrective for Hercules’ vaunted ambition, is one that offers a rich exploration of issues in sexual politics. Sadly, this evening’s production offered little more than a tokenist gesture at the tragedies enacted on the violated bodies of female prisoners in Iraq, or elsewhere for that matter.
What saves this production of Hercules is the sublime Alice Coote as Dejanira and Lucy Crowe as Iole, and the rousing performances by the COC’s chorus. Coote’s Dejanira stumbles tragically through her anti-depressant deadened haze to recoil with fire and passion at her husband’s dubious behaviour. Her bravura performance of “Resign Thy Club” was a tour de force of venom and despair. The icy perfection of Crowe’s Iole was the perfect complement to the fiery Dejanira. Crowe’s pristine voice delivered all the tragedy of her circumstance, and she brought a particular dramatic genius to stage that was missed in the other performances. Sadly, Richard Croft’s performance of Hyllus (in crutches, as a crippled veteran one presumes) was uninspiring, and Eric Owens’ Hercules looked, and sounded, like a grumpy child who had wandered onstage. His death aria, sung while hanging backwards over a fiery boulder, was wretchedly unheroic, and made one suppress the urge to giggle.
Sellars harks back to Aristotle when he claims, “there can only be as much justice as your eloquence can create and awaken in the hearts of your fellow countrymen.” If that’s the case, let’s hope that a later production does justice both to Handel’s Hercules, and to the more serious issues of history and the cultural representation of race relations between the Western world and its perceived other, the Middle East.