When Harry Christophers took over the artistic reins of the Handel and Haydn Society almost a decade ago, he pledged to recommit the group to the music of its namesake composers. No need to search farther afield, the argument went, when there is still plenty of treasure to excavate in one’s own backyard.
He might well have had in mind Handel’s remarkably dramatic oratorio “Hercules,” which until this weekend had been left all but untouched by H&H. On Friday night in Symphony Hall, Christophers addressed that absence, leading a performance notable first and foremost for its vibrant choral singing.
One of many choral high points came at the end of Act One, where Handel pulls out the stops to create a joyous atmosphere celebrating Hercules’s grand return. Here Christophers drew singing of great vigor and vitality from the H&H chorus and threaded the voices together with zesty orchestral playing in a way that maximized the drama and lofted both forcefully off the stage.
Contributions from the evening’s vocal soloists were solid if less triumphant. Even if H&H is new to “Hercules,” Boston has heard some extraordinary singers navigate these roles, including Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who sang Dejanira, Hercules’s long-suffering wife, at a 1999 Emmanuel Music performance. On Friday, Catherine Wyn-Rogers took on that fiercely difficult role and ultimately rose to its challenges, though her singing would have benefited from clearer diction and a stronger projection of character as the role built in its emotional complexity, leading up to Handel’s unforgettable Act Three mad scene.
The composer actually gives his title character less nuanced material to work with, but Jonathan Lemalu was clear and forceful as Hercules. And Amanda Forsythe was in radiant, silvery voice as Iole, the freed princess whose presence stokes the flames of Dejanira’s jealousy. Tenor Robert Murray as Hyllus and Woodrow Bynum as the Priest of Jupiter capably rounded out the cast. As Lichas, William Purefoy was barely audible above the orchestra.
…Those who did make it ended the night on their feet, cheering.
At Symphony Hall, May 4