There are mad scenes, and then there are mad scenes. Joyce DiDonato's third-act portrayal of Dejanira -- wife of the titular hero in Handel's Hercules, which opened tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- is a performance that crawls up under your clothing and itches relentlessly. She starts out the act ghoulish, shrunken, griefstruck at having unwittingly engineered her husband's demise, and it only gets worse. DiDonato completes florid lines in a near shriek, she lurches and crawls, she slaps her head and swats away imaginary demons. She's reckless, macabre and unhinged, completely batty and utterly riveting. Even when the action is elsewhere, you can't help but stare at DiDonato in dumbstruck amazement.
Of course, Dejanira isn't the most solid citizen from the onset. Handel's first act contains little action and lots of description; even so, DiDonato's long jumps from grief at the reported death in battle of her husband to elation at his triumphant return is compelling theater. In act two, she reacts to the presence of her supposed -- and judging by body language, perhaps likely -- amorous rival, the captured princess Iole, by hurling herself bodily at the younger girl. ("Hillary, this is my new intern, Monica.") Briefly convinced that her suspicions are misplaced, she maintains an edge of wariness as she makes amends with Iole. By the end of the act, in an action that sets up the tragedy of the finale, she's a desperate housewife who unknowingly uses a lethal weapon in order to get her man back.
The spellbinding DiDonato is surrounded by solid collaborators. William Shimell swaggers with the confidence of a man who knows the seductive nature of his power. The young Swedish soprano Ingela Bohlin portrays Iole with a fresh-faced innocence -- up until the moment in act three that she tenderly drapes herself across her dead captor's body, which suggests that either Dejanira was right all along, or this is a hostage with a seriously advanced case of Stockholm syndrome. As Hyllus, son of Hercules and Dejanira, Ed Lyon is sweet, well-meaning and mostly ineffectual -- he's Buffy the Vampire Slayer sidekick Xander Harris, physically and otherwise. [EDIT: By this, I definitely mean that Lyon sings an ineffectual character; his voice, on the other hand, is light and handsome.] Katija Dragojevic's Lichas is the drama's most unambiguous locus of duty, honor and genuine heart. The onstage chorus performed admirably throughout the evening, and provided director Luc Bondy with raw material for some striking visual effects, including the ebony wave of singers backed into a dark crease of curtain at the opening of act three.
Handel may not have written Hercules as an actual opera -- "music drama" was his chosen term -- but Bondy's effective directing rendered the work gripping rather than merely stageworthy. DiDonato's shocking abandon is perhaps the foremost example, but other, more subtle touches are everywhere in abundance. When unseen deity Jove commands the wedding of Iole and Hyllus at the conclusion, the uneasy mismatch is underscored by the physical distance the two maintain as they sing their hymn of praise; Iole had already rejected Hyllus's sincere advances, a fact neither could quite set aside even under holy order.
Bondy's stark staging was a modern update of a classical Greek amphitheatre, its sand-covered floor strewn with fragments of a monumental statue that suggests this particular royal couple's demise from the onset. Using minimal means and effective blocking, Bondy created one memorable stage picture after another while always advancing the drama. (I doubt that this is what the Met donors New York Times reporter Daniel Wakin interviewed would label "Eurotrash" -- but either way, bring it on!) In the pit, William Christie led his ensemble Les Arts Florissants in a stylish, superbly balanced and lovingly shaped performance of Handel's score, despite a few spots of notably wayward intonation.
Given the usual drawing power of Christie's presentations at BAM, I was genuinely surprised to see empty seats tonight. Granted, it was an early curtain, a long show and Valentine's Day, to boot. Still, the chance to see and hear musical drama rendered with such a high level of intelligence and imagination is more uncommon than non-New York City music bloggers might suspect. Add in Joyce DiDonato's star-confirming performance, and this seems fairly compulsory. The remaining performances are on Thursday, Feb. 16; Saturday, Feb. 18 and Sunday, Feb. 19.
There were plenty of empty seats at the Metropolitan Opera's Aida on Monday night, too, but that's far less surprising in a mostly B-cast performance of a well-trodden Sonja Frisell [EDIT: thanks for the correction, JSU] extravaganza, especially after a major snowstorm. That there were still newcomers in the crowd was confirmed by the gasps at every elevator move. And I'll also grant that the performance actually gained definition and momentum as the night wore on.
But -- and there's no pleasant way to say this -- Andrea Gruber had a bad first act. No, a BAD first act. Her voice was simply not there, and her acting was frequently painful, a catalog of lunges, swoons and puckers. She improved to some degree in each act; I've seen her do better, and I forgive easily, but still...
As Radames, Johann Botha gave a tremendously ardent, sweet performance. A large man, Botha's voice set the whole of the house ringing. Kwangchul Youn was a commanding Ramfis, Hao Jiang Tian a decent King. Juan Pons turned in a solid Amonasro; if he wasn't quite as scene-stealing as Lado Atanelli had been last fall, it was probably because of the towering presence that lifted the evening above routine: Olga Borodina's Amneris. Simply stated, Borodina owned this show. She was seductive, shrewd, domineering, nasty and ultimately heartbreaking. For her performance alone, this was time well spent.
The chorus had a strong night, and in the pit, James Conlon once again dug into the sheer genius to be found in one of Verdi's supposedly more foursquare scores. Heard through incessant coughs and chatter, the preludes to each act were genuine marvels of orchestral refinement. Still, in light of that afternoon's press conference on that very stage, during which I couldn't help occasionally looking up and staring at Frisell's imposing columns suspended overhead, I wondered when Peter Gelb might call James Cameron in to overhaul the production -- and whether that was really such a bad idea.