A scene from Berenice © ROH 2019
Review: Berenice3:20, 5th June 2019
Berenice – Handel
London Handel Festival
Royal Opera House
Review by Robert Thicknesse
Some things never change, among them the First Rule of Baroque opera staging: when in doubt, turn up the campometer to 11. Handel’s Berenice – highlight of this year’s London Handel Festival – clearly induces serious doubts. Its most recent revivals, at Halle in Germany last year and at Covent Garden’s Linbury this spring, have both made unseemly beelines to the romper room. I reckon that silly film The Favourite has a lot to answer for: the peculiar notion that the best way to portray Strong Women is to make them behave like gay men in drag performing La cage aux folles is a peculiarity of the #MeToo folderol we may unpack at our leisure when the dust has settled…
Don’t get me wrong, I sympathise with Adele Thomas, a director whose desire to entertain is like water in the desert in these days of ashen-faced rigour from the likes of Christof Loy, Stefan Herheim and their gang of Euro-wowsers. There are worse things than trying to show the audience a good time. The dramatic situations of Berenice are love-or-duty dilemmas of a pretty mediocre kind, which never develop depths liable to wake us up. The music is consistently high-level, without going much beyond. You’re left with a vivid heroine, some vapid men, a bit of muddled politics and some pretty pointless courtiers. So glitter balls aweigh! Let’s treat it as a fuddled romp through Partenope/Xerxes territory, and hope the audience doesn’t notice.
A lot of work went into the show, and a very fine cast did everything that was asked of them in an intensely active, physical performance (I could have used a bit less of Patrick Terry’s impressive but wearisome tumbling skills). Jacqueline Stucker, Rachael Lloyd and James Laing made the point that our young Handel singers are better than ever; and I particularly liked Alessandro Fisher, a stylish and meaty tenor newish on the block.
The ‘feisty women’ banner under which this (and pretty much everything else these days) was produced is a con, of course. Yes, at the beginning Berenice is all staunch girl power with her ‘No! No! No!’ to the idea of being forced into a political marriage – but by the end she’s done a massive U-turn, with her giggling, eyelash-batting and kittenish ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ to exactly the same deal. And indeed, before succumbing to the patriarchy, it was Mrs T who was the figure who came most readily to mind in Clare Booth’s forthright, wall-climbing, fearless performance, combining physical energy with great control and virtuosity. There was a lot of real Handel here, even if he had to fight his way out of a somewhat enlarged biomass of foolery.