Review of Handel’s Berenice
Linbury Theatre, Covent Garden, 27th March 2019, co-production by Royal Opera and London Handel Festival, directed by Adele Thomas, London Handel Orchestra conducted by Laurence Cummings, libretto translated by Selma Dimitrijevic, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Bragging rights matter. Spur’s new stadium reportedly has the longest bar in Europe, the aptly named “touchline”. But the Linbury Theatre, an intimate space, evidently has the longest sofa. It was the only prop in Royal Opera’s paired down new production of Handel’s Berenice. Commissioned in 1736 and premiered at Covent Garden in the following year, it tanked after only three performances.
Richard Morrison, in an otherwise positive review in the Times, notes “how little of the text is adequately enunciated”, even though the libretto is sung in English. Or to put it in plain English, the words aren’t clear. He was not the only critic to bemoan the absence of surtitles. But ultimately it is the interaction between the libretto and the music that matters in Handel, not the meaning of the words. Wagner’s total art work and opera verismo were yet to come.
Barry Millington, in the Evening Standard, summarised the convoluted plot of Berenice wittily and succinctly; we have “…a strong willed female ruler who won’t take no for an answer, [and] a dysfunctional government..” Conductor Laurence Cummings, in the official programme, acknowledged that the story line is complex. But he suggested that we view Queen Berenice as “a woman…in charge, in what has hitherto been a man’s world…” Me too…
In this production, everything is played for laughs. We are in “comic territory”, as one commentator observed. The men are fey and foppish, and the women wear the trousers, quite literally in the case of the excellent Jacquelyn Stucker, cross dressed in the role of Alessandro. This part was originally played by a high soprano castrato.We are supposedly in Ancient Egypt, but confusingly the cast are bewigged and wear Baroque costumes. The irrepressible Laurence Cummings conducted the London Handel Orchestra and also played the harpsichord.