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Barbican, London

I GAVEup a trip to Malta to see Luc Bondy's semi-staged production of Handel's Hercules and it was worth it (although don't tell the wife as she thinks I was working).

Performed on the more intimate stage of the Barbican theatre, this oratorio cum opera was exciting, powerful and brilliantly sung and acted. In Joyce DiDonato opera has one of the most versatile performers. If ever there was a showcase for her talents, this was it.

She dominated proceedings, moving from sorrow when she thought her husband Hercules had died, to jealousy over the woman he brought back with him from his battles, to rage and madness that ended in her killing him with a poisoned cloak. It was a tour de force that will be difficult to beat.

The mad scene in the final act is one of the most powerful ever written and DiDonato sweeps across the stage with such power. Dejanira might well be one of the greatest roles ever written for a woman.

Hercules shows just how ahead of his time Handel was. The music is innovative and only Vivaldi comes close to providing music for violins that has the vibrancy of that which Handel provides. I'm even sure at one stage the theorbo, an 18th-century guitar prototype, played the opening chords of The Who's Pinball Wizard.

Dominique Bruguiére's lighting at the end of Iole's aria in act two transformed the stage, which was just enclosed walls, sand and a broken statue of Hercules, with a rather generous penis - perhaps Dejanira may have had good reason to be jealous that he was dabbling where should not have been.

Baritone William Shimell made a striking Hercules and was convincing in his dying moments, with British tenor Ed Lyon, a talent in the making, as his son Hyllus, who falls in love with Iole (Ingela Bohlin). Swedish soprano Bohlin was to have sung Iola but she had a throat infection. Instead Hanna Bayodi was plucked from the chorus at the last minute to sing it from the pit, while Bohlin acted the role and mimed on stage. Bayodi's singing proved more convincing than Bohlin's miming.

William Christie conducted the Les Arts Florissants orchestra with feeling and stamina in a very cramped pit and the chorus, who started the performance in their everyday coloured clothing and finished in their everyday black numbers, could not be faulted.

The one drawback was the lack of surtitles. Such was Katija Dragojevic's poor diction as Lichas that I only understood two words she sang all evening. This was also the view of people sitting near me, who felt they could not get as close to the characters as they wanted.

Review by Peter Wilson

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