One of Royal Opera director Oliver Mears’ initiatives is to bring back to Covent Garden the numerous works Handel premiered there. The series began last October with the (unstaged) oratorio Solomon; now the Linbury presents Berenice, rarely performed since its unsuccessful 1737 launch.
It turns out to be extremely worthwhile. The obscure subject is a first-century BC queen of Egypt who was murdered by her stepson/husband Alexander 19 days after their marriage – though Handel’s opera doesn’t specify their previous relationship and tactfully ends the piece with their coming together. Its complex narrative blends politics with personal passions that fire up the innumerable showpiece arias for the central characters.
Selma Dimitrijevic provides a new English text that works well but could work even better with sharper diction; in other respects, the cast do an excellent job with their meaty material.
There are strong vocal and dramatic performances from Claire Booth, confidently virtuosic in the title-role; Jacquelyn Stucker, direct and expressive as Alessandro; Rachael Lloyd, eloquent as her sister Selene; and James Laing, consistently fine as her adored Demetrio. Patrick Terry is a scene-stealer as Selene’s admirer, Arsace; Alessandro Fisher is suitably business-like as the Roman envoy Fabio; William Berger is reassuringly stable as Berenice’s adviser, Aristobolo.
Motivational conductor Laurence Cummings judges tempos nicely and the London Handel Orchestra produces endless quality tone.
Hannah Clark’s resplendent 18th-century costumes and clever set – essentially a semi-circular banquette on which three accompanying musicians (what Handel would have called his continuo players) form part of the background – add to the considerable visual appeal of Adele Thomas’ intellectually focused and witty production.