Berenice review – witty and winning political chicanery

Linbury theatre, Royal Opera House, London
Handel’s collision of royal politics and love is played with conviction by a strong cast led by Claire Booth, under the direction of Adele Thomas

‘Politics is cursed,” sighs the queen’s adviser in Berenice, an opera that felt more like a satire than it might otherwise on a night that coincided with eight trashed indicative votes. But how could politics not be doomed when it’s pitted against true love? That’s the slender plot in a nutshell of Handel’s 1737 opera, dusted off from relative obscurity to open this year’s London Handel festival in a stylish production by Adele Thomas: a little irreverent, a little cold, but witty and winning.

It’s the second opera to be staged in the redesigned Linbury theatre, which feels like a building divided: on one side, the audience’s plush horseshoe seating; on the other, the big black box of the wide open stage. In Hannah Clark’s designs, the lines of the audience side continue onstage in a massive curved sofa, over which the characters clamber with no regard for what their big-buckled shoes will do to its emerald green velvets. At one end, rouged and bewigged, sit three musicians with harpsichord, cello and lute; the rest of the orchestra are in the pit, where Laurence Cummings conducts a whistle-stop, light-touch performance with enough cuts to bring the work in at under three hours. Costumes are 18th-century with a twist – pannier frocks in African-print fabric for the Egyptian royals – and the tiniest hint of the grotesque.

from lef, William Berger, Alessandro Fisher, Patrick Terry and Jacquelyn Stucker in Berenice, directed by Adele Thomas.
Pratfalls … from left, William Berger, Alessandro Fisher, Patrick Terry and Jacquelyn Stucker in Berenice, directed by Adele Thomas. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Selma Dimitrijevic’s new translation renders the words into English that is direct, almost blunt, and with no surtitles it’s fortunate that the singers work skilfully to put it across. They have to, as the open design makes for a slightly barn-like acoustic in a theatre that should feel intimate.

The cast is strong enough to make it work. Claire Booth is imperious as the Egyptian queen Berenice, and her gradually intensifying duet with James Laing’s beautifully sung Demetrio at the end of Act 1 is a musical high point. Patrick Terry executes gormless Arsace’s precisely choreographed pratfalls nicely, and sings well too, as does Rachel Lloyd as Selene – and, especially, Jacquelyn Stucker, who as noble-hearted Alessandro makes an uncannily convincing young prince.

At the Linbury theatre, London, until 7 April.

Contributor

Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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