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The Power of Jealousy

Philharmonia Baroque
Pillar of Strength: Nicholas McGegan guided the Philharmonia Baroque to a robust performance of Handel's 'Hercules' on Saturday (Sept. 13).

Philharmonia Baroque's rendetion of Handel's oratorio 'Hercules' charts a steep dramatic trajectory

By Philip Collins

Call it coincidence that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Walt Disney are simultaneously enjoying robust box-office returns for their respective revivals of Hercules lore. But the strength of Handel's oratorio Hercules does not rest upon the Greek god's legendary biceps.

Instead, Rev. Thomas Broughton's libretto focuses on the super powers of jealousy rather than of brawn. The battle takes place on the domestic front, which turns out to be as perilous a combat zone as anything those Greeks ever came up with.

Handel's infrequently revived oratorio is a powerful musical drama that Music Director Nicholas McGegan and his inspired troupes performed with Herculean might at First Congregational Church in Berkeley Saturday night (the second of four Bay Area performances in San Francisco, Berkeley, Walnut Creek and Palo Alto).

The Philharmonia Baroque's delivery of Handel's 3-1/4-hour score (including about 30 minutes of cuts) stole the time away. McGegan stoked the work's dramatic trajectory with unmitigated gusto and imagination. Handel's pervasive theatricality was honored and honed to brilliance; from points of minutiae (which seem countless in number) to the grand picture of it all, the Philharmonia represented the composer's gifts to constant advantage.

McGegan's casting of the soloists benefited from uniform virtuosity and divergently contrasting vocal styles, which intriguingly fleshed out the work's dramatic dimension. Drawing from the writing of Sophocles, Ovid and Seneca, librettist Broughton instilled his characters with extraordinary emotional detail and range. The two female leads--Dejanira (Hercules' wife) and Iöle (daughter of the slain King Eurytus)--are especially well defined.

As Dejanira, mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin championed one of Handel's most Olympian roles. In lamenting her husband's absence in the first scene, Robbin was tender and plaintive. Hercules' unexpected return from battle inspires her joyful "Begone my fears," but her celebration turns to jealousy when she learns that Hercules has brought home the comely daughter of his vanquished foe. Robbin's snarling rebukes of jealousy were so vicious that it looked like a cat fight was immanent.

Dejanira initiates the story's ultimate tragedy when she presents Hercules with Nessus' robe, which unbeknownst to her, is poisoned. Hercules' death triggers Dejanira's notorious aria of ranting--"Where shall I fly!"--wherein she hallucinates snakes and scorpions pursuing her. Robbin's rendering was magnificent, as unhinged as it was unerringly focused.

Soprano Julia Gooding, as Iöle, Dejanira's imagined rival for Hercules' love, brought singular vocal qualities to bear. Iöla's lot is wrought with woe from the start and only worsens as the story unfolds. Iöla's ability to maintain grace throughout the piece requires special casting and Gooding proved up to the task.

Iöle, after being orphaned and made homeless, must endure Dejanira's accusation of maneuvering her own abduction as a means to win Hercules' love. Gooding's performance evoked Iöle's innocence convincingly and made Iöle's uncommon virtues shine. With hints of what seemed a Nordic accent and a pinpointed, flute-toned timbre that illuminated consonants in favor of the darker vowels, Gooding's voice stood out distinctly from the others.

Gooding also supplied unencumbered chest tones, which gave wing to the cascading melismas and ornamentation of her extroverted passages.

'To Love I Fly'

In the title role, baritone Kevin McMillan was galvanizing, sporting a buoyant, luminous tone that radiated evenly throughout the role's range. Although the piece focuses on an autumnal stage of Hercules' life--"Now farewell, arms! From war to love I fly"--he is still a formidable figure, and his vocal resolve is quite undebatable.

Countertenor Daniel Taylor, who debuted with the Philharmonia last season in Handel's Israel in Egypt, offered soothing commentaries of the goings-on as Lichas, and tenor Robert Breault was thoroughly luminous in the role of Hyllus, Hercules' son.

McGegan's concise animation of the score's rhythmic life and gestural nuances brought illuminating perspectives to Handel's tone-painting. The composer's theatrical ingenuity was exploited to the utmost; mirrored phrases between the orchestra and vocalists were executed with strategic effect, and the harmonic underscoring of emotional countenances was artfully finessed. McGegan's choices of tempo and specified pacing from movement to movement maintained the work's momentum.

Of the performance's many memorable accomplishments, Bruce Lamott's 35-voice Philharmonia Chorale contributed its fair share with delectable accuracy and drama.

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