Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Brilliant re-invention: Handel's Berenice from London Handel Festival & Royal Opera

Handel: Berenice - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda
Handel: Berenice - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda
Handel Berenice; Claire Booth, Rachael Lloyd, Jacquelyn Stucker, James Laing, Patrick Terry, Alessandro Fisher, Willilam Berger, dir: Adele Thomas, London Handel Orchestra, cond: Laurence Cummings; 
London Handel Festival at the Royal Opera House  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 April 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
One of Handel's late, problem-operas in a brilliant new production which successfully re-invents the opera, with sparking performances from a young cast

Handel: Berenice - Jacquelyn Stucker, Claire Booth - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda
Handel: Berenice - Jacquelyn Stucker, Claire Booth
London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda
Handel's opera Berenice was premiered at Covent Garden in 1737 and has hardly been seen since. Having presented a concert performance of the opera in 2016 [see the review on OperaToday.com] the London Handel Festival joined forces with the Royal Opera to dust the piece off and stage it in the 18th century theatre's modern successor. And, as with a number of other neglected Handel operas, demonstrate that the work can be far more effective on stage than seems on the page.

Directed by Adele Thomas with designs by Hannah Clark, the production featured Claire Booth as Berenice, Rachael Lloyd as Selene, Jacquelyn Stucker as Alessandro, James Laing as Demetrio, Patrick Terry as Arsace, Alessandro Fisher as Fabio, and William Berger as Aristobolo, with Laurence Cummings conducting the London Handel Orchestra.

Antonio Salvi's libretto to Berenice was originally written in 1709 for composer Giacomo Antonio Perti at the Medici court theatre at Pratolino in October 1709, when it is possible that the young Handel saw it. We don't know why he chose the opera for his 1737 season, or who adapted it for him. Winton Dean suggests that Handel adapted Salvi's libretto himself and Dean regards the adaptation (or rather extreme compression) as a botched affair as the removal of so much dialogue made the characters' actions almost risible. Adele Thomas' lively production, however, demonstrated that the opera can be made to work and revealed the beauties of Handel's score. Whilst there are no real show stoppers, the level of invention is very high.

Handel: Berenice - Jacquelyn Stucker, Patrick Terry - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda*
Handel: Berenice - Jacquelyn Stucker, Patrick Terry
London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda
The opera was sung in a new English version by Selma Dimitrijevic and this was the key to the production's approach. The truncated libretto leaves the opera full of non sequiturs, curious plot turns and insufficiently fleshed out characters. A fuller libretto with a younger and full of health Handel (1737 was the year he suffered his first strokes and he was not well enough to direct the performances of Berenice) might have given us something like Radamisto. Instead the music is lighter, and Thomas and Dmitrijevic pushed the drama much closer to the satirical writing of Partenope where we are not required to take the characters completely seriously, and also gave us hints of another late, problem opera Imeneo (where the notional castrato hero is not the most interesting character and doesn't get the girl).

In Berenice no-one is particularly admirable. Berenice (Claire Booth) herself, Queen of Egypt but a client of Rome, is in love with Demetrio (James Laing) but required by Rome to marry Alessandro (Jacquelyn Stucker). She sticks up for marrying for love, but seems completely unaware that Demetrio is in love with her sister Selene (Rachael Lloyd) and spends much of the first half of the opera being devious and deceitful. Selene is similarly scheming, furious with Demetrio for apparently abandoning her she accepts the hand of besotted Arsace (Patrick Terry). The men are no better, Demetrio spends a lot of time pretending, and whilst he is revealed as firm of purpose it takes a lot of getting there, and fundamental is his willingness to scheme with a foreign monarch to unseat Berenice and put Selene on the throne! Alessandro is noble and high-minded but frankly rather boring, the opera gives us little opportunity to really get to know him. And as for Arsace, his part is so truncated that all we really get is his obsession with Selene, yet in action he is profoundly ineffectual.

All this gave Thomas and her cast scope to fill in the gaps. This Berenice wasn't strictly a comedy, but there was a satirical mixture of comedy and pathos. The first half of the opera was very much a frothy mix, as people jostled for position and it was only during the second half, as Berenice realised quite how treacherous Demetrio was, that things took a darker turn and real feelings emerged. The great credit of the production was that the cast did this naturally, so that despite all the hi-jinks (and there was a lot) we believe in Berenice, Selene and Demetrio as characters.

Handel: Berenice - Claire Booth, Alessandro Fisher, William Berger, James Laing, Patrick Terry, Rachael Lloyd - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda*
Handel: Berenice - Claire Booth, Alessandro Fisher, William Berger, James Laing, Patrick Terry, Rachael Lloyd - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda
The cast were notionally in 18th century dress, but Hannah Clark's imaginative costumes took inspiration from the artist Yinka Shonibare, and the two women's dresses counterpointed their 18th century outlines with striking contemporary batik fabric.
The set was plain, just a huge sofa against a black wall. The concept was that we were back-stage with the divas and divos presenting the opera, the back-stage shenanigins echoing the plot of the opera. What this gave us was out-size characters behaving badly, the large scale personalities and emotions making some sort of coherence of the turns of the plot. To add spice to this the continuo group (Mark Caudle, cello, Jonas Nordberg, Archlute, and Oliver John Ruthven, harpsichord) was similarly in 18th century dress and placed on stage as well, sitting on the sofa and interacting with the singers. A delightful conceit.

The result was very physical, too much so for my taste, but it worked. And the young cast created a vividly theatrical entertainment, yet one with a really dramatic heart.

Handel: Berenice - William Berger, Rchael Lloyd, Claire Booth, James Laing - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda*
Handel: Berenice - William Berger, Rchael Lloyd, Claire Booth, James Laing
London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda*
Central to this was Claire Booth's performance in the title role, which combined technical fluency with remarkable emotional range, great intensity and a sense of fun. This was a role written for the first Alcina (Anna Strada del Po) so it is a demanding one, particularly striking was her Act Three aria with a superb oboe obbligato and an alternation of different tempi which made it seem more like a free-form scene than an aria. But most of all Booth made us care, she made Berenice's twists and turns matter as she struggles between love and duty, giving the character a heart.

Rachael Lloyd played Berenice's sister Selene as a spitfire with great intensity. The relationship with James Laing's Demetrio was dark and complex, and Selene had a tendency to simmer on the side-lines and then erupt. We were never certain of her, and Lloyd brought a rich dark voice and rock solid technique to the role making a brilliant foil for Booth's Berenice.

Jacquelyn Stucker was the notional hero as Alessandro (a part written for soprano castrato Gioacchino Conti) but, as with Handel's late opera Imeneo, the composer seemed less interested in his hero and the music never really took off. It is to Stucker's great credit that she made us feel the emotional journey that Alessandro took from the giddy love-sick youth of the opening after his first sight of Berenice, to his noble insistence on being chosen by Berenice (and not imposing himself) at the end. It helped that Stucker really did have the demeanour of a young man!

James Laing's Demetrio hid a firmness of purpose under a flaky exterior, with a willingness to go with the flow. Certainly not an admirable character, Laing made us believe that Demetrio did have a heart and his progress through the opera was striking, creating a credible emotional arc with some striking music along the way. Demetrio gets the only accompanied recitative in the opera, a striking one where he responds to the new that Selene was marrying Arsace, and his final aria in Act Three when he thinks he is going to his death was a suitably strong piece.

Handel: Berenice - James Laing, Patrick Terry, Jacquelyn Stucker - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda*
Handel: Berenice - James Laing, Patrick Terry, Jacquelyn Stucker
London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda*
Arsace was more problematical, this was a relatively minor role yet with an important place in the plot (in love with Selene, his marriage to Selene is one of Berenice's attempts to solve her domestic problems). Here Patrick Terry brought a great physicality to the role, his Arsace was a brilliant physical comedian, fleshing out the sketchy role with great physical hi-jinks which linked to the characters self-regarding love for Selene. He had a striking duet with Alessandro, which Alessandro keeps trying to say what he will tell Berenice, but each time it is Arsace who completes the sentence!

The two lower voiced characters were there simply to provide support and to facilitate the plot, yet both get arias. Here both William Berger as Aristobolo (Berenice's captain) provided a nice sense of being the only sane person in the mad-house, a character who watches and manipulates, with a nice briskness to his aria-writing. Fabio is the Roman ambassador and clearly thinks all these Egyptians are crazy, and Alessandro Fisher brought a nice smoothness and sense of the down-to-earth to the role. His aria about bees was a delightful piece, yet one with a clear message as he tried to make Alessandro understand he should play the field!

A special mention must go to the continuo group, Mark Caudle, Jonas Nordberg, and Oliver John Ruthven, who created real characters who not only played continuo but interacted with the singers and became part of the action. A lovely conceit which gave a nice sparkle to the musical drama.

In the pit Laurence Cummings drew a lively account of the score from the London Handel Orchestra. The piece is lightly scored, yet is full of delights and part of Cummings skill was to make these lighter style Handel arias work, getting us to appreciate the beauties of the restrained orchestration.

Selma Demitrijevic's translation certainly helped to turn a problem piece into one which was smart and witty. It was a brave decision to sing it in English with no surtitles, but one which reaped rewards. Diction was not always perfect, but enough came over for us to be able to hang onto every word and allow the young cast to tell their own story, rather than reading it in captions above their heads!

Handel: Berenice - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda*
Handel: Berenice - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda
This was a brilliant re-invention of a problematical opera. Adele Thomas' production did not always convince me that she wasn't adding physical action for the sake of it, rather than allowing the music to speak for itself, but overall she and the cast drew a superbly engaging and ultimately thoughtful performance out of one of Handel's more neglected and problematical operas.

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