Whether "Hercules" is opera or oratorio is truly academic. What matters most is that this is a top-shelf DVD that features spectacular performances. I highly recommend this DVD to lovers of opera, oratorio, or Baroque music in general.
Before discussing the positives, of which there were many, I only have one bone to pick with this production. That issue is the scene where Hyllus, well sung by tenor Toby Spence, is preparing to leave his mother Dejanira to search for his father Hercules. Given the gravity and danger of the trek, Spence seemed somewhat casual about the whole thing. At one point, he pulled out a huge fold-out map, and was showing Dejanira where he would go by making his fingers walk over the map. It was also clear he had no idea where on the map he was pointing. In acting-speak, there was no intention in his movement. He was then aided in his packing for the journey by the chorus, who brought him a backpack, thermos, etc. The lack of gravity of the staging, combined with Spence's youthful looks, made the whole scene look like he was off to summer camp. In fact, the only character on stage who seemed to grasp the seriousness of this event was Dejanira.
None of the reviews I read gave enough credit to the fantastic musicians of Les Arts Florissants. Maybe I'm sensitive to this because I'm a violinist, but nonetheless, the playing is wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the prelude to Act III with its jagged rythms and beautiful violin solos.
The chorus is also top notch. The balance between the voices was perfect, and the chorus played their role as narrator and moral arbiter with surety.
The casting was brilliant, starting with Malena Ernman as Lichas. Ms. Ernman is blonde, buff, beautiful, and though billed as an alto, she is an honest-to-goodness contralto. Her low register will blow you away.
I loved Ingela Bohlin as Iole, the pretty young thing that Hercules brings back following his Act I triumph. Ms. Bohlin looks like a movie star, and has a gorgeous leggiero soprano voice to match. The weight of her voice was a perfect balance with the other women in the cast. Her acting was credible and honest.
William Shimell was a virile yet vulnerable Hercules. His full baritone was perfect for the heroic part. Toby Spence, despite the one scene, is a wonderful tenor and sings the difficult role of Hyllus with flair and confidence.
The star of the evening, as she most often is, was Joyce DiDonato as Dejanira. She showed it all. Her Act I arias (or are they airs?), where she is pining away for her absent husband will pull at your heart strings. Her rock solid technique allows her the option of ethereal, floating pianos and pianissimos. Her jealousy scene with Iole was creepy, and foreshadowed the madness to come. The mad scene in Act III was brilliant and risky. Other critics have said it, and it is true: Joyce DiDonato is a fearless singer. She is truly one of the greatest mezzos of our day. In addition to being a singer who can do it all, she commits to her character and choices, and gives the audience all she has.
Not only would I recommend you buy this DVD, I might recommend that you spend the extra money for quick shipping. I'm sure you will enjoy it, and I look forward to watching my copy many more times.