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Drama Queens and Divas at the ROH: Handel's Berenice

A war ‘between love and politics’: so librettist Antonio Salvi summarised the conflict at the heart of Handel’s 1737 opera, Berenice. Well, we’ve had a surfeit of warring politics of late, but there’s been little love lost between opposing factions, and the laughs that director Adele Thomas and her team supply in this satirical and spicy production at the ROH’s stunningly re-designed Linbury Theatre have been in severely short supply.

Handel’s Berenice: Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House/London Handel Festival

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Claire Booth (Berenice)

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

This Berenice, which channels Georgian grotesque humour, spiked with a light peppering of present-day allusions, is thus a welcome breath of fresh air, borne aloft on the wings of uniformly superb dramatic singing in this ROH/London Handel Festival co-production.

Handel’s opera did not, however, have auspicious beginnings when it was first presented in a theatre on the very site of the current day Linbury Theatre. Appearing during the composer’s ill-fated 1736-37 season, when competitive rivalry with the ‘Senesino Opera’ was taking its toll on Handel’s health and hopes, Berenice was the composer’s shortest running production, closing after four performances with Handel reportedly ‘very much indispos’d’ with ‘a Paraletick Disorder, he having at present no Use of his Right Hand’. Apart from a brief outing in Brunswick in 1743, there have since been just a couple of enterprising student productions (at Keele University in 1985, and at Cambridge in 1993) and two recordings: Alan Curtis’s 2010 offering with Il Complesso Barocco, which followed the Brewer Chamber Orchestra’s 2003 recording conducted by Rudolph Palmer.

Setting the opera in Handel’s eighteenth century enables Thomas to present both elegance and effrontery. The powdered periwigs suggest polite graciousness, but the urbanity is tempered by a coarseness - epitomised by rudely rouged cheeks and the way the boisterous, buckled shiny shoes ride rough-shod over the central, dominating velvet banquette - which reminds us that malodorous chamber pots rather than chivalrous manners were the order of the day.

Rachel Lloyd Selene.jpgRachel Lloyd (Selene). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Thomas’s decision to transport the opera from Egypt 80BC to the backstage of a Georgian theatre peopled by drama queens and fawning fops is a winning one, suggestive of a political allegory of goings on at Handel’s Royal Academy of Music, whose Covent Garden productions contended with those of the rival Opera of the Nobility at the King’s Theatre. Moreover, Thomas draws upon the tradition of Georgian tragedy which, often lightened by comic contexts, frequently juxtaposed traditional and modern values within strong female figures caught between husband and father, personal desire and public duty: ‘the celebrity actresses playing these women exemplify new individual freedoms as well as their intricate negotiations of a society’s contradictory expectations.’ [1] All well and good for the #MeToo age.

First, the single gripe. Selma Dimitrijevic has provided a new English translation and judging from the few phrases readily audible - “politics is cursed” - it’s a deft text. But, in the resonant Linbury acoustic, consonants went AWOL and, in the absence of surtitles, great swathes of recitative and aria text disappeared into the hinterland. Given the unfamiliarity and complexity of the plot, this was not helpful.

Quuen with Alessandro Fisher, William Berger, James Laing, Patrick Terry, Rachael Lloyd.jpg Claire Booth (Berenice), Alessandro Fisher (Fabio), William Berger (Aristobolo), James Laing (Demetrio), Patrick Terry (Arsace), Rachael Lloyd (Selene). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Hannah Clark’s very open set design, for all its focal impact, perhaps does not help. An emerald green, velvet, semi-circular sofa, adorned with a pink fringe, is the sole piece of ‘set’, seeming to extend the seating of the house itself as it stretches across the stage, set within an embracing black expanse. It houses, during the overture, a motley crew of thespians and toffs sipping Earl Grey and engaging in piquant exchanges, its peak crested with a bloomy display worthy of a psychedelic Dutch flower painting. There are a few reminders of the drama’s Egyptian roots - in the brightly hued designs adorning the regal sisters’ pannier hoops, and the two Barbary Lion gates guarding stage left and right.

The plot is a prototype cat’s cradle of romantic knots. Alessandro loves the Egyptian Queen Berenice, who is betrothed to Demetrio Prince of Macedonia - who loves the Queen’s sister Selene - but Berenice, a marital pawn at the hands of the Roman Emperor, is forced into betrothal to Arsace. Baroque amatory quadrangles are here expanded to become a pentagon of possible romantic connections between the Egyptian queen, her sister, and three potential husbands, at the heart of which two feisty and resentful sisters rage, riot and rule.

James Laing (Demetrio), Patrick Terry (Arsace) and on-stage continuo.jpg James Laing (Demetrio), Patrick Terry (Arsace) and on-stage continuo. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

With the continuo trio of Mark Caudle (cello), Oliver John Ruthve (harpsichord) and Jonas Nordberg (archlute) bewigged and seated amid the action - they have their music snatched from under their noses on occasion - conductor Laurence Cummings was nestled in the Linbury pit with just strings, oboes and bassoon. This was one of Handel’s low-budget orchestrations but, in Cummings’ hands, no less vibrant and buoyant given the scant resources. Tempi seemed just right, and the lean string textures did promote the voices to the fore; that said, Cummings might have drawn greater variety of articulation and tone from the London Handel Orchestra string players.

What really made this such a terrific evening of musical drama, though, was the commitment, engagement and prowess of the superb cast. As the titular monarch, Claire Booth evinced regal righteousness and authority, and a quirky unpredictability, singing with real bite: a little brittle perhaps in her opening rejection of patriarchal command addressed to the Roman ambassador, ‘No, che servire altrui’, though topped with some fantastically acerbic cadential trills, but softened subsequently to convey the Queen’s conflicting emotions. Berenice’s Act 3 ‘Chi t’intende?’ was a tour de force of musico-psychological probing aided by James Eastaway’s delicious oboe obbligato.

Alessandro and ArsacejpgJacquelyn Stucker (Alessandro) and Patrick Terry (Arsace). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Rachel Lloyd flounced furiously as the feisty Selene, dark of tone and temperament, the fioritura fiery but pristine. As Demetrio, loved by both sisters, James Laing sang with unforced strength, flexibility and expressiveness. It was really satisfying, too, to see young members of the cast finding their musico-dramatic feet: Patrick Terry’s Alsace was goofily gormless - we felt for him at the close when he was a loose end as the lovers’ tied the marital knots - though still calmly negotiating the roulades of Alsace’s rage aria, while Alessandro Fisher displayed confidence, professionalism and assurance as Fabio. William Berger was able to summon vocal intensity as Aristobolo.

Best of all, though, was Jette Parker Young Artist Jacquelyn Stucker as Alessandro. The role is less virtuosic than the others, but the pure directness of Stucker’s lyrical spinto surely conveyed the integrity of a man who puts love above self-advancement, and the elegance of the soprano’s stylish phrasing was wonderfully engaging and honest.

The singers balanced a sure sense of Handelian style - and impeccable tuning and passagework - with an individuality of expression which added warmth to what might have been a rather chilly satire. In the concluding ensemble, with the marriages of Alessandro to Berenice and Demetrio to Selene resolving the political and amatory tensions, the soon-to-be-weds sing of the joyous harmony that allows them to set aside the struggles of love and politics. Heart-warming sentiments: if only things were that ‘simple’ in real life.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Berenice

Berenice - Claire Booth, Selene - Rachael Lloyd, Alessandro - Jacquelyn Stucker, Demetrio - James Laing, Arsace - Patrick Terry, Fabio - Alessandro Fisher, Aristobolo - William Berger; Director - Adele Thomas, Conductor - Laurence Cummings, Designer - Hannah Clark, Adaptation - Selma Dimitrijevic, Lighting design - D.M. Wood, Movement director - Emma Woods, London Handel Orchestra.

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Friday 29th March 2019.



[1] See The Oxford Handbook of the Georgian Theatre 1737-1832 edited by Julia Swindells and David Francis Taylor.

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