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Hercules: A night of musical delight

Sophia Dickinson

This Saturday Canberra’s premier choral group, the Canberra Choral Society (CCS), will present their annual oratorio at the Playhouse. For the fourth year running, they will perform one of Handel’s works – this year it’s Hercules.

You might be asking what’s an oratorio? It’s sort of like an opera – a big musical composition including solo singers, a chorus and an orchestra; a large-scale, usually narrative musical work for orchestra and voices and typically on a sacred theme.

Hercules is definitely large-scale with a 60-strong choir, 12 musicians from the CCS Baroque ensemble and soloists Christopher Richardson (Hercules), Christina Wilson (as Dejanira, Hercules’ wife), Janet Todd (as the beautiful Princess, Iole), Jacob Lawrence (Hyllus), Tobias Cole (Lichas) and Andrew Fysh (Priest).

If you’re not yet convinced, then CSS Artistic Director Tobias (Toby) Cole gives five very persuasive reasons why you should see this one-night only performance.

“If you’ve never experienced an opera or oratorio before then this is your best introduction,” says Toby. “It’s a great story; it’s in English; it’s in the best theatre in Australia – The Canberra Playhouse; it’s being performed by some of Australia’s best singers and instrumentalists, and it’s got fabulous costumes and lighting.”

But rather than take it from the Artistic Director, take it from the mouths of lead soloists Christopher Richardson and Christina Wilson…

What do you love about Handel’s Hercules?

Christopher: The musical language that Handel composes is so beautiful. The use of melody, harmony and rhythm is so beautiful and a true characteristic of music from the Baroque era. Combining that with an engaging story and an interesting and important moral, it’s amazing music and a great story to tell, which makes for a great production.

Christina: It’s a strong dramatic work. Handel keeps the pace of the story moving throughout the piece and takes the audience on a journey exploring very deep human emotions. Handel called it a ‘Music Drama’ rather than an oratorio because it is a non-religious story. It’s a very appropriate description because it is closer to an opera in the way the characters interact and develop.

What do you find particularly challenging or interesting about performing this piece? What’s special about your character?

Christina: I’m playing the role of Dejanira who is Hercules’ wife. She is the central character in the work that Handel uses to tell the story of Hercules – his victorious return home and tragic death. Her emotional journey moves through loneliness waiting his return, grief and anger not knowing if he is dead, followed by the hope of dying and being reunited with him in the afterlife. When she learns of his triumphant return she is ecstatic but soon succumbs to suspicion and jealousy of the Princess Iole that he has brought back as a captive. She accuses him of infidelity but can’t believe his protestations that he has remained faithful as she has. In a bid to find reconcilement she inadvertently causes his death and goes mad with guilt and grief.

There are not that many female roles that explore this range of emotions or have so much singing. The music Handel writes to show her emotions is beautiful, exciting and vocally very demanding. Singing Dejanira is one of the most challenging and most rewarding characters I have had the opportunity to perform.

Canberra Choral Society Theodora. Christina Wilson.

Christopher: The most interesting part, which is not necessarily challenging but surprising and interesting, is that Hercules is a strong man, a conqueror, but in this story his downfall is not a physical opponent but an emotional one. The poison in his marriage, the thing that ends up killing him, is the jealousy of his wife… It’s interesting how that’s what killed this strong man who could withstand anything.

The moral of the story – trust is the foundation of relationships.

What do you love about Baroque music?

Christopher: It’s the use of melody, harmony and rhythm. In the same way architecture from the same period (1600 to 1750) is ornate, with beautiful plasterwork and paintings. The aesthetic beauty in art and music of that time is very different to modern minimalism. It’s quite exhilarating as well, really fast vocal passages – a vocal gymnastics with difficult, fast melodic passages to sing. From a rhythmical and methodic point of view it’s exiting to sing and listen to. It’s not just an easy walk in the park – there are a lot of somersaults and tricky stuff to get your voice and head around. Similar to Baroque architecture, with Baroque music the melody is ornate, complicated and beautiful.

Christina: Baroque music has wonderful energy and flow. These are generated in its harmony, rhythm and melody by the creation and resolution of tension. The more tension that is built up the greater the relief when it’s resolved and this powerful relationship in music is something composers have been exploring and exploited throughout history.

In Baroque music ornamentation of a piece’s melody was especially developed to highlight these points of tension and release. This involved intentionally using notes that clash (appogiatura), oscillating quickly between two notes (trills) and adding extra runs or fill in notes. Performers were expected to insert these, sometimes improvised, to enhance the meaning and emotional content of the words. Using these techniques makes singing Baroque music a particular challenge but also very satisfying and expressively powerful.

It’s a strong dramatic work…that takes the audience on a journey exploring very deep human emotions…”

Originally from Hobart, Christopher now resides in Sydney with his family but travels across Australia to perform. Christian is based in Canberra and has sung all over the world including the Royal Albert Hall and Westminster Abbey in London. She and her husband Alan Hicks both teach in the music department at the University of Canberra.


Another special aspect of Hercules is the CCS Baroque Ensemble. Although there wasn’t enough funding for a full orchestra, the CCS Baroque Ensemble draws together some of Australia’s key pioneers in period instruments performances including concertmaster Bianca Porcheddu, cellist Anthea Cottee, oboist Kirsten Barry and harpsichordist Erin Helyard. Their instruments will be strung with handmade gut strings rather than the usual steel strings, a sound that is rather unique says Bianca.

“It’s a really real sound, you get squeaks and the strings go out of tune more easily than steel strings. It’s a real concert feel sound,” Bianca explains.

“I’d love the audience to have the courage to come along and experience a sound that isn’t your usual symphony orchestra sound.”

Bianca trained at The Hague in Holland, and most of the ensemble has studied overseas, but they’re excited to bring their worldly experiences back to Canberra.

“We’ve all worked with some of the top European Baroque specialists. It’s nice to bring something so close to home now.”

Founded in 1952, CCS is one of Canberra’s oldest performing arts societies. They have a broad repertoire ranging from traditional choral music to contemporary works. Their next performance will be Double Trouble – a celebration of the music of the Wesley-Smith brothers – on August 1 in the Street Theatre. They’ve been rehearsing for Saturday’s performance for about two months. This week the conductor, Brett Weymark, musicians and soloists will also practise together daily ahead of a final technical and dress rehearsal a couple of days before the big show. The visual of Hercules is also of high standard with lighting design by Cynthia Jolley-Rogers who was awarded Canberra Amateur Theatre Award for Best Lighting Design for her work on Canberra Rep’s 2012 production of Speaking in Tongues.

So whether you’re a Baroque music devotee or keen to experience something new, Saturday’s performance of Hercules promises to be a delight for all.

The essentials

What: Handel’s oratorio Hercules
Who: Canberra Choral Society
When: 7:30pm Saturday May 30
Where: Playhouse Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre
How much: $34-$64 through Canberra Ticketing


Sophia Dickinson

Sophia is a true Canberra girl having been born and raised here, and she now works in the public service. She loves Canberra for all it has given her from a great education, fulfilling work to opportunities to indulge her love of dance and music. She is passionate about travel and writing, and studied post-graduate media and communication. She has appeared in several local amateur theatre productions, although she prefers to be an audience member these days. More about the Author

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