Readying 'Hercules' was a labor of love Bringing the long-neglected oratorio to the stage was not nearly as easy as the Handel Choir of Baltimore thought it would be.

November 15, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

For the Handel Choir of Baltimore, bringing one of their namesake's greatest works to town has been a Herculean task.

Among other things, they've had to cope with finding music long out of print, contend with voice and orchestra parts that don't match and resolve a Hydra-headed string of minor snafus.

Yet despite their travails the choir is anticipating a historic performance today when it presents Handel's long-neglected oratorio "Hercules" at 3 p.m. at Baltimore's Church of the Redeemer.

" 'Hercules' is considered by many scholars to be among Handel's greatest works," says T. Herbert Dimmock III, the choir's artistic director. "So it's ironic that this great piece is so rarely performed that it has gone out of print."

Handel wrote 23 major oratorios - choral works, often based on biblical or mythological subjects, that are meant to be performed on stage without costumes or scenery.

His "Messiah" and its rousing Hallelujah Chorus, which the choir will perform next month at the Basilica of the Assumption, is surely one of the most famous choral pieces ever written.

In addition, Handel wrote dozens of operas and innumerable concertos and chamber works.

But the success of "Messiah" has nearly drowned out the composer's other works, especially the oratorios that Handel based on stage plays and which he conceived as giant musical dramas.

With the exception of "Israel in Egypt," a Passover-season favorite, these other works are rarely heard today.

"Hercules," which debuted in 1745, was a flop at its premier and was performed only a handful of times during Handel's life. Yet the eminent music scholar Paul Henry Lang has called it "the highest peak of late Baroque drama."

Such neglect creates all sorts of unforeseen difficulties for the conductor who wants to reacquaint modern ears with Handel's larger legacy.

"I was told there was only one publishing house that had it available," Dimmock recalls of the early planning stages for "Hercules," which began last year.

"So I ordered the conductor's score to study. Then it turned out all the chorus parts were out of print. We had to rent them from a publisher in England."

Even then, his problems weren't over. After the chorus parts arrived, it turned out the orchestra parts that went with them were from a 150-year-old edition that was full of errors and glaring omissions.

"One movement was so messed up we finally had to take the conductor's score and photocopy it, then cut out the individual staffs for each instrument, and paste them together and enlarge them again so the players could read them," Dimmock recalls.

The conductor has had to work from one score, the chorus and soloists from another and the orchestra has had to valiantly make do with a hodgepodge of photocopies and out-of-date parts.

"It just goes to show that once you get off the beaten track, you have to really love what you're doing and put the extra time in to make it work," Dimmock says.

There's plenty to love in Handel's "Hercules," a powerful musical drama which, like "Messiah," is a mix of mighty choruses and poignant arias sung by a quartet of soloists.

But unlike "Messiah's" sacred subject, "Hercules" is about all-too-human passions - an explosive mixture of carnal love, betrayal and jealousy that lifts its characters to operatic heights of emotion.

According to legend, Hercules was the offspring of the god Jupiter and Alcmena, a mortal woman.

Jupiter's wife Juno became jealous of her husband's paramour and condemned Hercules to perform a series of seemingly impossible feats - the Labors of Hercules.

Handel's oratorio begins after the hero has completed these tasks and taken as his reward a wife, the beautiful princess Dejanira.

The couple is happy at first. But Dejanira becomes jealous when Hercules returns from battle accompanied by a lovely young female captive, Iole.

Believing Iole to be her rival, Dejanira offers Hercules a garment soaked in a magic potion she believes will restore his love for her.

But the potion is actually a poison devised by the Centaur, Hercules' enemy. The dying hero cast himself upon a funeral pyre. As flames consume his body, Jupiter commands Hercules' son Hyllus to make Iole his bride.

In today's performance, the soloists are mezzo-soprano Deidra Palmour as Dejanira and bass Edward Crafts as Hercules. So-prano Maureen Francis sings the role of Iole, and tenor Stanley Cornett sings Hyllus.

The 84-voice Handel Choir, founded in 1934, is Baltimore's oldest community-based choir and is composed almost entirely of musically gifted amateurs.

"We're proud to be amateurs in the original sense, meaning we make music purely for the love of doing it," says Dimmock.

The choir's ambitious schedule this season also includes performances of Handel's "Israel in Egypt" in March and Bach's great "Mass in B Minor" in April.

"There's a famous quote from Berlioz, who says singing is the only performing art where talented amateurs with fine leadership can achieve the highest results," Dimmock says.

"I think that is true because that's what we do - always strive for the highest results."

'Hercules'

What: Handel Choir of Baltimore performs Handel's oratorio "Hercules"

When: Today at 3 p.m.

Where: Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

Tickets: $12-$21

Call: 410-366-6544

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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