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Dejanira waits for news of her husband Hercules, the world’s strongest man, who has been away at war for 18 months. His bloody labours have included 12 impossibly punishing tasks and a conflagration in the state of Oechalia. In the absence of news, her fears for him, her resentments, her helplessness to help, and the anxiety of separation itself, she finds herself unexpectedly weeping at strange times of day and not knowing how to stop.
Lichas, Hercules’ herald and a close family friend, visits to console this inconsolable woman (“…disconsolate his absence she laments…”). He prays with her for Hercules’ safety and safe return (“Preserve, great Jove, the hero’s life”).
She has been sitting for days alone in a room with the blinds drawn, lamenting the light that is missing from her life (“The world when day’s career is run”).
Her son Hyllus has asked priests to perform a divination ceremony at the temple. He returns with a shocking prophetic image – a vision of his father’s corpse surrounded by flames (“I feel, I feel the god”).
Dejanira reaches for tranquilizers to find some calm and serenity. She imagines her own death and a meeting with her husband in the world beyond (“There in myrtle shades”).
Hyllus is determined to go to the ends of the earth to find his father – from the polar caps to the Middle East (“Where congealed the northern streams”). He is frightened and does not know where to start. A divinely inspired chorus of neighbours and friends gives him courage and hope (“O filial piety! O gen’rous love!”).
Lichas brings official confirmation that Hercules is alive: he has sacked and leveled Oechalia to the ground and is on his way home. Dejanira begins the process of telling herself that she can let go of her fears and anxieties (“Begone my fears”).
The first planeload of returning troops arrives with disturbing cargo – among the prisoners of war, the princess Iole, who saw her father killed before her eyes and her countrymen massacred at the hands of Hercules. Her appearance in chains shocks the spectators and moves Hyllus, who instinctively wants to help her. Stunned and disoriented in a new and hostile land, she prays with all her strength and every fibre of her being to the goddess of liberty (“Daughter of gods, bright liberty!”), affirming a world order based on hope and pleasure, plenitude and grace.
A somewhat perfunctory triumphal march heralds Hercules’ return. He is exhausted, but retirement is also a challenging prospect; at least on the battlefield abroad he knew his job and his place. Facing his family and himself will be the most difficult battle of his life. He has brought Iole home as a war trophy, but also as a love interest on the side. He is marked as a man who has difficulty giving, receiving, and accepting love.
Iole experiences recurring traumatic flashbacks of her father’s grisly death (“My father”).
Hercules doesn’t want to talk about the war, or the bloody things he has seen and done, but it is also hard for him to imagine what is next (“The god of battle quits the bloody field”).
At a party with neighbours and friends, Hercules feels strangely out of place in his own home, and his wife still can’t figure out how to respond to him (“Crown with festal pomp the day”).
Iole’s memories of a quiet peaceful life in the mountains of her ravaged country stirs, haunts, mystifies, and touches her new neighbours (“How blessed the maid”). She rejects Hercules’ fumbling advances, but Dejanira has seen enough. The arrival of a new young woman in their household is an affront. Of course, everyone’s heart goes out to the war victim, particularly if she’s pretty, Dejanira snaps (“When beauty sorrow’s livery wears”).
Iole, beginning to grasp the unhappiness of the world she has entered, pleads with Dejanira not to give in to jealousy which will exchange all her peace and love for endless pain (“Ah, think what ills the jealous prove”).
Lichas, on very shaky diplomatic ground, still trying to protect his boss but somehow acknowledge that there are real problems, tries to reconcile husband and wife, but neither of them is ready. They will need time to heal and find each other again (“As stars that rise and disappear”).
The chorus calls out jealousy for what it is: the tyrant that burns in every human breast, kindled with every trivial glance and gesture, dividing us, gradually turning us into monsters that we no longer recognize (“Jealousy”).
The gods themselves descend to earth to taste the deeper joys of love among humans (“From celestial seats descending”). Hyllus offers Iole the safety and refuge of his enfolding love, reaching beyond his own childhood of blame, growing up in his father’s shadow with an abiding sense of unworthiness for love or greatness. He finds his own homeland in the exiled mind and heart of a courageous refugee.
Wishes, sighs, and soft desires ripple through the night (Chorus: “Wanton god of am’rous fires”).
During a late night of alcohol and wild emotion, Dejanira congratulates her husband on his new honours and promotions. She observes that he has become an abject slave to his passions and unfulfilled emotional hunger. He shouts back at her that he deserves some applause and headlines (“Alcides’ name in latest story shall with brightest lustre shine”), referring to himself by his birth name, Alcides. But all the parades and hero’s welcomes leave him with a bitter aftertaste, an emptiness, and overwhelming, unresolved anger. The idea of a new generation emulating his career and exploits first fills him with pride and then sickens him.
Dejanira, her feelings also ricocheting around the room, mocks him, humiliates him and emasculates him. She calls him a whining boy. Dangerous, brittle violence hangs in the air. She tells him to put away his weapons and learn to help around the house (“Resign thy club”). She only succeeds in driving the man she loves further away from her bruised and hurt body and heart.
After lying to her point blank about his marital infidelities, Hercules shuts down and retreats behind a wall of silence. He lets his wife know that she has a problem and that she needs to fix it. He leaves for another award ceremony.
Dejanira, at her lowest moment, pleads for the sun to no longer rise in the sky, leaving herself and her husband silent and dead in an endless night (“Cease ruler of the day to rise”).
She prays to a kinder power to inspire her. She wants to recover. She wants to regain Hercules’ alienated love. A radical idea comes to mind. Years before, a centaur, Nessus, had tried to rape her. Hercules rescued her, shooting Nessus with a poisoned arrow. As he died, his grip on her skin loosening, Nessus whispered to her that his blood would transform into a magic potion capable of reviving “the expiring flame of love.” She kept and hid his liquid in an urn and now she will use it to draw Hercules back to her. She buys Hercules a beautiful jacket, and rubs the love ointment into the lining. She gives the treated coat to Lichas, and asks him to take it to her husband as a reconciliation gift. She wants Hercules to wear it with honour during his ceremony. No sooner does Lichas disappear with the magic garment than Dejanira turns to see the wool rag on the floor, the rag that she used to rub in the potion, begin to smoke, sputter, dissolve and burn.
Lichas recounts the horrifying experience of offering the coat to a pleased and proud Hercules and watching him put it on, then writhe and scream in agony as poison seeped into his joints and the hero’s burning, mangled flesh fused with the coat’s malignant fibres. Lichas tries to pull himself together for his funeral oration at the memorial services, to say farewell to a brave but very unhappy man (“Oh, scene of unexampled woe”).
The chorus acknowledges the end of an era: “Tyrants now no more shall dread on necks of vanquished slaves to tread. All fear of punishment is gone.” We are helpless in front of ever new forms and new faces of tyranny. “The world’s avenger is no more.”
We watch Hercules, twisted in unbearable pain, burn in the unrelenting flame of his own rage. He calls for help and no one answers. He rages on, furious and alone.
His body and mind pushed beyond the last limits of pain and endurance, Hercules curses his wife and orders his son to bear his body to a mountaintop to be received by the gods.
Now it is Hyllus’ turn to see the fulfillment of his prophetic vision – his father’s final flaming agony. With no space for grief, he has a panic attack. He turns on Iole, who is Oechalian, as a possible spy – news of Hercules’ death must be hushed up and hidden from a hostile world. Hyllus can trust no one now, overwhelmed with his father’s legacy and beginning to run in Hercules’ shoes.
Dejanira is drowning in guilt and unassuageable grief – Hercules was killed by her hand. Her last gesture of love was Nessus’ final act of revenge. She will be haunted for the rest of her life by relentless demons, steeped in remorse and self-blame (“Where shall I fly”). She watches as the phantoms of her own mind lead her to a place of horrible isolation, entrapment, and finally, suicide.
Iole intervenes. With her aria (“My breast with tender pity swells”), Handel offers a compassion that reaches beyond Greek tragedy and moves us into an Enlightenment world of understanding and recovery, the recognition of suffering as a path towards healing and gradual transformation.
The community emerges from shock with the resolve to honour, praise, and offer gratitude to the men and women who have sacrificed lives, hearts, and limbs, and the families who have supported them, with their own wounds and resilience (“To them your grateful notes of praise belong”). The song of liberty welcomes all strangers: the wedding of Iole and Hyllus suggests the birth of a wiser America and a different Middle East.
— Peter Sellars
Alice Coote as Dejanira in the Canadian Opera Company production of Hercules, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper
Generously underwritten in part by Anne and Tony Arrell,
and Donald E. O'Born