Hercules, Barbican Theatre, London

Truly a towering performance
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First seen in Aix-en-Provence in 2004, Luc Bondy's production of Handel's dramatic oratorio Hercules for Les Arts Florissants is a bitter and brilliant compound of the modern and the mythical. In 1745, Handel could take for granted his audience's knowledge of his hero's military career, his violent rages, his divine parentage, his serial infidelities, his gross appetites, and the poisoned cloak given to his jealous wife by her former lover, Nessus. In 21st-century London, where Ancient Greek and Latin are deader than ever, Bondy can make no such assumption. Yet it is Sophocles's Hercules as much as Handel's Hercules whose story he tells.

Handel's attempt to rationalise an irrational subject is curiously apposite today. With the exception of Hercules's deification, and the small matter of slaughtered snakes in the nursery, there is nothing unbelievable in the oratorio. Men and women murder every day, statesmen are poisoned, and thugs are worshipped in societies sophisticated enough to know better yet impassioned enough to forget. Bondy's production - set in a lofty concrete chamber, with sand stirred up by passing feet, a broken effigy, and dying light cruelly slanted onto the leaderless people within - boils Hercules's history down to its amoral essence: portraying his final days in the barest, most direct physical language.

Imposing of stature, if not quite the four cubits and one foot of legend, William Shimmell is ideally cast in the title role. His bloodied hands and abstracted battle fatigues scream instability from the start. More surprising is the vulpine cunning he displays in Act II, casting ropes of pearls at Iole, the utter frigidity of his behaviour to his wife and son, and the shocking impact of his writhing death: part demon, part newborn in Nessus's gory shroud. Iole, who in Sophocles's telling of the story is silent, was acted by the temporarily voiceless Ingela Bohlin and sung gamely from the pit by Hanna Bayodi. Ordinarily, this would have been distracting. Instead, it emphasised her status as an alien in a family sick with suspicion and contempt.

Excepting the business with the nail files and the orange juice, Bondy's detailing is subtle and unshowy: a constant intensification and illumination of the larger picture. To pick one example, in Iole's first lament the chorus listens raptly to its leader's stolen prize, Hyllus (Ed Lyon) falls in love in one fearful glance, Hercules wipes his hands, and his wife Dejanira (Joyce DiDonato), almost unseen, inhales Iole's coat for traces of her errant husband's scent. For each character, and for their witness and narrator Lichas (Katija Dragojevic), this is the first step to tragedy.

It would be terribly easy to turn this review into a hymn to DiDonato. So opulent and extravagant is Handel's portrayal of Dejanira's madness - a vocal and emotional marathon - that it is surprising he named the oratorio after her husband. It takes a lot to challenge Anne Sofie von Otter's ownership and understanding of this role but DiDonato has managed it. More arresting, however, is the way in which her performance, those of the other soloists and the chorus, and the superlative designs, costumes, lighting and movement direction of Richard Peduzzi, Rudy Sabounghi, Dominique Bruguière, and Michel Kelemenis combine to one end. The playing of the orchestra and continuo section under William Christie was, needless to say, matchless. For those who missed the Barbican performances, the Bel Air Classique DVD of the Palais Garnier performance comes highly recommended.