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Mezzo-soprano and Contralto
George Frideric Handel, Hercules (1744)
Act 1: A. Recitative and aria, “Then I am lost!… There in myrtle shades reclined” B. Aria, “Begone my fears” (Dejanira)
Original Content •
OPERA America’s “Aria Talk” column focuses not on the tried-and-true audition arias you undoubtedly already know, but on somewhat more off-the-beaten-track repertoire. The hope is that this music will prove a refreshing musical and interpretive change not only for you, the performer, but also for those hearing you in auditions.
Hercules was for years considered exclusively an oratorio, but Handel actually called it a “musical drama” and he premiered it in a theater, rather than a church or a concert hall. Now that opera companies and music festivals are finally beginning to discover the theatrical possibilities of Hercules, it’s time for mezzos and contraltos with particularly flexible voices to include one of Dejanira’s arias as an English-language selection in auditions. This magnificent characterization is actually the focus of the piece, rather than the title role. Dejanira has six arias, from which it’s difficult to choose just one as a first choice for auditions, so I’m going to mention two, both very different but equally rewarding in their different ways.
Dejanira, Hercles’s wife, begins the piece in a state of high anxiety, brought on by not knowing if her husband is dead or alive. She’s been waiting for what seems like forever for him to return from battle (she doesn’t know that he’s just conquered the city of Oechalia, slain its king, and taken the king’s beautiful daughter as a captive). Her son Hyllus informs Dejanira that the temple’s oracle has predicted Hercules’s death. Devastated, she anticipates her own demise and being united with her husband in Elysium, where “in myrtle shades reclined … we shall prove eternity of bliss and love.” Then, later in Act One, when her herald Lichas announces Hercules’s impending return, Dejanira explodes with joy: “Begone, my fears, fly hence, away, like clouds before the morning ray!”
The first aria (preceded by a passionate recitative) sustains a mood of painful, almost unbearable intimacy. You need to sing this hugely moving piece with a slim but very concentrated sound, sculpting the entire aria in an exceptionally calm legato and maintaining control at the top of the staff even at very low volume. Beyond all that, you have to combine profound sorrow with regal dignity. Sing the second aria if you can really sail through Handelian coloratura at a good clip while also shaping it to apt expressive purposes — mere rapidity isn’t enough! The giddy exhilaration of Dejanira’s mood in “Begone my fears” can communicate an overwhelming joy, especially when it’s enhanced by imaginative ornamentation in the da capo.
NOTE: If you have no time constraint in your audition, by all means consider Dejanira’s magnificent mad scene, “Where shall I fly”? — it’s one of the most astonishing tours de force in Handel.
Timing: A) 3:30; B) 3:45
To hear the complete role: Listen to Joyce DiDonato (DVD), Sarah Walker (CD), or Anne Sofie von Otter (CD)
About the Author: Roger Pines, dramaturg at Lyric Opera of Chicago, judges annually for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and regularly advises singers on choosing repertoire.