A turkey when first presented by Handel in 1745, Hercules is packing in Parisians with an appetite for serious culture during the festive season. Before this production was seen at Aix-en-Provence last summer, Hercules had never been staged in France. But it has proved to be yet another remarkable triumph for the tireless William Christie and the instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants, who positively relish this score, as if it had been composed specially for them.
Subtly directed by Luc Bondy, making his first stab at Handel, it is thankfully devoid of any of the superfluous gestures that some directors turn to when faced with often static forms and long, repetitive arias. Instead, Bondy brings out the vivid characterisation in Handel's music, drawing accomplished performances from his committed singer-actors.
The plum role of Hercules' wife, Dejanira, as fuelled with anger as any woman who suspects her husband of cheating with someone younger, has inspired some great interpretations from mezzo-sopranos.
Dame Janet Baker descended magisterially into madness on her Handel recital disc in Dejanira's scena "Where shall I fly?"; Sarah Walker seemed to the asylum born in the same number on John Eliot Gardiner's early "authentic" recording of the work; while Anne Sofie von Otter (on Marc Minkowski's recent CD) was always going to be a hard act to beat.
But Joyce DiDonato is outstanding in this role. At first heartbroken at the loss of her husband (missing, reported dead), she is overwhelmed with passion at his unexpected return, consumed with manic jealousy over the beautiful captive princess he has brought back from his latest conquest, and finally full of bitter remorse after unwittingly sending him to a horrible, fiery death.
Vocally convincing in her violently changing emotions - playful in teasing the none-too-bright Hercules (William Shimell), snide in feigned friend- liness with her rival Princess Iole - it is in the realms of guilt and madness that her singing becomes as compelling as her obsessive behaviour.
Against Richard Peduzzi's granite setting, in which ancient Greece merges with contemporary costumes, the various encounters (as dramatised by Ovid, Sophocles and the Reverend Thomas Broughton) take place on a sandy archaeological site. There, a massive bronze statue of Greek's greatest hero, Hercules, lies in pieces.
The chorus, limited to making detached observations on the action, is as homogenous in its singing as in pointing its collective finger at Dejanira in "Jealousy, infernal pest".
Toby Spence makes a stylish, warm-toned Hyllus, giving the impression of an earnest student on his gap year, while Ingela Bohlin is a ravishingly sympathetic Iole. Even the dove plays its part with simple conviction, flying high like the rest of the company.