Berenice at the Linbury

Berenice, Linbury Theatre

First a welcome to the hall. The old Linbury Theatre was a Spartan concrete cavity, well suited to the hair-shirted avant-garde performances which were often staged there. Now out of its wrappings, the new Linbury is a beautiful oak-panelled space perfectly designed for Baroque opera, indeed for chamber performances of every kind. Musical life in London will be the richer for it.

Secondly, a welcome to the work. Handel’s Berenice, which was a flop in 1737, spent two and a half centuries gathering dust in a library before some students rediscovered it in 1985. Since then it’s seldom been performed, and comes to us now as part of the London Handel Festival in a new English translation by Selma Dimitrijevic, which seeks to render the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot in a form which will speak to a twenty-first-century audience.

Ask conductor Laurence Cummings what it’s about and he gives a terse answer: ‘Power. And politics. And sexual desire, and its frustration.’ More precisely, it’s about a woman being told that a marriage of convenience has been arranged for her, as a gambit in the ongoing war between ancient Rome and Egypt. And her first aria begins with the word ‘No’ sung four times in a row – the message being that her heart will not be dictated to by politics. In this story the women fight like cats, while their put-upon male partners are frightfully decent types, often self-denyingly so.

William Berger as Aristobolo, Rachael Lloyd as Selene, Claire Booth as Berenice, James Laing as Demetrio (C) ROH 2019 Clive BardaWilliam Berger as Aristobolo, Rachael Lloyd as Selene, Claire Booth as Berenice, James Laing as Demetrio ©ROH 2019/Clive Barda

Until recently even Handelians were sniffy about the quality of Berenice, but I challenge anyone to see this show and fail to come out enchanted by the beauty and inventiveness of the score. All the action – in bewigged period costume – takes place on a semi-circular green-baize sofa which spans the stage; Emma Woods’s movement-direction for Adele Thomas’s extravagantly physical production is witty while never upstaging the music; the London Handel Orchestra under Cummings’s direction plays with quintessential Baroque grace and verve. It would have helped if we’d had surtitles – not everyone’s diction was perfect – but the general line was clear enough for the gist to come across.

Sex and violence are constant undertones, surging out in moments of passion: Patrick Terry’s rag-doll Arsace is tossed around the stage as everybody’s fall-guy; Rachel Lloyd and James Laing as the star-crossed Selene and Demetrio all but get their kit off under the influence of passion; Claire Booth’s imperious Berenice shakes her crotch in Demetrio’s startled face, then in sheer frustration beats up everyone in sight.

The marvel is that these fine singer-actors manage all this with spot-on comic timing, and without missing a beat of their coloratura or distorting the arias which come thick and fast as the plot winds to its close. Exquisitely-sung numbers by Booth and Lloyd, accompanied respectively by oboe and flute, are capped by a majestic aria from the American soprano Jacquelin Stucker – taking a role originally written for a high castrato – who gilds the whole evening with her lustrous singing.




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