Review: Hercules (Canadian Opera Company)

Great for opera aficionados, the COC’s Hercules is playing at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre

Hercules, by G.F. Handel is a “moment after” style narrative. In the Canadian Opera Company’s modernized production, Hercules has returned home from the completion of his legendary twelve labours which culminated in the sacking of the state Oechalia and the seizing of her beautiful, young princess. While Hercules is celebrated as a hero by all, he is deeply conflicted about his reintegration into society.

The libretto is based on a play by Sophocles about the impact of militarism on domestic life. This is a deeply reflective and intellectual tale that relies almost exclusively on solo recitative and arias – the operatic equivalent of a play comprised almost entirely of monologues. I definitely noticed the lack of duets, trios and small ensembles which represent dialogue and interactions between the characters. This in turn made for fairly stark stage movement. Frequently there was one performer on stage, at other times an aria was sung while the other performers on stage stood in quiet repose. These contemplative arias were punctuated by colourful chorus numbers which in true Grecian style commented on what had just taken place using stylized gestures.

The production used one simple set and contrast was created with changes to the lighting and backdrop. Using a screen, the backdrop could be veiled or unveiled. This was an effective use of symbolism and the unveiled nighttime backdrop added a nice touch of glitter to a minimalistic set.

This production rejected the practice of incorporating some sort of action on stage during the overture to set the scene and mood. The focus was entirely on the orchestra’s playing and the mood set with Handel’s music. Baroque operas utilize a relatively small orchestra and require light, intricate playing. The overture gave the COC’s orchestra a good opportunity to demonstrate their superb command of baroque conventions with regards to articulation and timbre.

Due to the reliance on solo singing, each principle character was required to bring their “A” game both vocally and dramatically. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote demonstrated that she has a broad range of timbral colour at her command. Opera singers invest a lot of time into sounding pretty, but knowing how to not sound pretty when the dramatic situation calls for it is an equally valuable skill. Ms. Coote was able to successfully harness the naturally bold edge to her voice to communicate the feelings of rage, contempt, jealousy and grief that are central to the character of Hercules’ wife Dejanira.

Soprano Lucy Crowe in the role of Iole, the captive princess, has a number of breathtakingly beautiful arias. Ms. Crowe executed a mix of intricate, florid passages and long, smooth lines with elegance, suppleness and clarity.

Eric Owens in the title role had appropriately imposing stage presence. His voice has just the right blend of roundness, heft and lyricism for the role of the antihero in a baroque opera.

In my opinion this is more of an opera lover’s opera and not one I would be as likely to recommend to opera novices or skeptics. Given the current, pop culture climate that requires continuous, nail-biting dramatic tension, I would probably recommend something with a bit more action, sex, violence or hilarity for opera newcomers. I would definitely recommend this for Handel and early music aficionados who will certainly not be disappointed by the outstanding singing, timeless music and topical themes of this thought-provoking production.


  •  Hercules is playing until April 30 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
  • Show times are 7:30 PM on  April 11, 15, 19, 24, 30 with an additional matinee on April 27 at 2 PM
  • Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
  • Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653)

Photo of Alice Coote, Richard  and COC Chorus by Michael Cooper