- Hugh Macdonald
Tragédie lyrique in four acts by Camille Saint-Saëns to a libretto by Louis Gallet and the composer after Sophocles ’ Trachiniae; Monte Carlo, 14 March 1911.
In 1898 Saint-Saëns had already treated the subject of Hercules in two symphonic poems when he composed incidental music for Gallet’s tragedy Déjanire, played at the open-air theatre at Béziers (for illustration see Saint-Saëns, (Charles) Camille ). In winter 1909–10 he adapted the work as an opera for production in Monte Carlo. Since Gallet had died in 1898 Saint-Saëns did the adaptation himself, writing assonant rather than rhyming verse. The plot has some features in common with that of Handel’s Hercules. It recounts the jealousy of Dejanira (soprano) for the passion felt by Hercule [Hercules] (tenor) for Iole (soprano), who in turn loves Hercules’ friend Philoctète [Philoctetes] (baritone). When Hercules discovers this he spares Philoctetes’ life only on condition that Iole consent to marry him. At their marriage ceremony, Iole gives Hercules Dejanira’s poisoned tunic and brings about his death, a moment which drew from Saint-Saëns some unusually harsh dissonances. Some scenes are mildly modal, to evoke the ancient world, and there is a good deal of pageantry, a remnant of the opera’s origins as a large-scale outdoor production. Both Dejanira and Hercules have forceful, strongly dramatic roles, and there is an interesting role for the ancient prophetess Phénice (contralto)....