Like "Semele," "Hercules" (1744) is a secular English-language drama drawn from classical mythology, composed at a time when Handel had turned from Italian opera to English oratorio. Though presented without scenery, costumes or stage action, this "Musical Drama" to a text by the Rev. Thomas Broughton (after Ovid, Sophocles & Seneca) is a stageworthy tragedy of love & jealousy -- Handel's librettist Charles Jennens, never one to mince words, called it "an English Opera." Although the only well-known piece from "Hercules" is Dejanira's mad scene "Where shall I fly?," nearly all the music is on a very high level, and when performed with skill & conviction, it's an immensely powerful work.
This is such a performance, not only the best "Hercules" so far (in an admittedly spotty career on disc) but a fine achievement on its own merits. Conductor Marc Minkowski deserves credit first: this is gutsy, vibrant Handel conducting, & he has a fine orchestra & chorus to work with. Yes, he can take some breakneck tempi -- I wish Hyllus's 1st & 3rd airs were a shade slower, if only so that admirable tenor Richard Croft could get all the words out with full clarity -- but everything is alive & visceral. He makes Archiv's 1983 set, the stylish (though drastically cut) John Eliot Gardiner version, sound tame and genteel by comparison.
Minkowski also has the strongest quintet of soloists so far, with some of the finest Handel singers around in peak form. Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter as the jealous Dejanira is magnificent, everything phrase burning with meaning (she can send chills up your spine with the single word "Yes..."); unlike Dan Davis, I don't miss a "bigger voice" (by which I think he means weightier or darker): it's refreshing to hear a young-sounding Dejanira who isn't in the least matronly (like Sarah Walker for Gardiner, or the fearsome Fedora Barbieri in the impossible La Scala performance). As Iole, whom Dejanira believes erroneously to be her rival for Hercules' love, soprano Lynne Dawson presents a more mature & strong-willed character than usual. Richard Croft captures beautifully both the extrovert virility & the romantic, erotic yearning of Hyllus (Hercules' son & Iole's suitor), and bass-baritone Gidon Saks is a powerful Hercules, moving in his death agony. Countertenor David Daniels is starry casting as the herald Lichas (composed for a star contralto, Susannah Cibber); he makes the most of a dramatically passive role.
My only reservations concern cuts & textual changes. Though this is the fullest version of "Hercules" yet - it runs 23 minutes longer than Gardiner's - it isn't complete. Of his six airs, Lichas loses a fair chunk of one ("The smiling hours," including the postlude, so Minkowski can link it directly to the next chorus) & all of another ("Constant lovers"); Iole gets to sing only the "A" section of her da capo aria "Banish love from thy breast." More troubling are two shifts of material, neither of which Handel ever made (and he made some eyebrow-raising changes in revivals of "Hercules"). Minkowski replaces "Constant lovers" with Lichas's earlier Act II air "As stars that rise": the words & the assertive music make great sense in the original location, where Lichas is defending Hercules against Dejanira's accusation of infidelity, but in the new one lose most of their relevance & dramatic point. Most puzzling of all is the treatment of Iole's entrance scene in Act I: her colloquy with her faithful maidservants is gone, save for the last few lines, which, with the ensuing air "Daughter of Gods, bright Liberty" are inserted later, between Hercules' air "The God of Battle" & the final chorus of Act I, "Crown with festal pomp." Theatrically, thematically, dramatically, psychologically, musically - in every way this strikes me as inferior to what Handel & Broughton wrote. Irritating if minor flaws on a great recording.