Handel: Berenice

Handel: Berenice
Royal Opera House / London Handel Festival
Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 1 April 2019

Handel’s Berenice was first performed in May 1737 in the Covent Garden Theatre, now the home of the Royal Opera House.  It was a tricky time for Handel and the London opera scene, with two opera houses competing for a limited audience. Handel promoted a large-scale 1736/7 season, but none of his new operas (Armino, Giustino, and Berenice) was successful. Handel also suffered a serious decline in his health, not least suffering a stroke in April 1737 that paralysed his right hand. It seems that Berenice only had three performances, probably rehearsed and directed by John Christopher Smith Jnr.  It returns to the present day Covent Garden (or, at least, the bowels of the present day Covent Garden) for the first time since its premiere, in the newly restored basement Linbury Theatre, in a Royal Opera House production in conjunction with the London Handel Festival. Continue reading

Return of Ulysses

he KingMonteverdi ‘The Return of Ulysses’
Royal Opera House, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
The Roundhouse. 10 January 2018

After the success of their 2015 production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Roundhouse (reviewed here), the Royal Opera House returned with an English language version of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, under the title of ‘The Return of Ulysses’. As its name suggests, the Roundhouse is a large circular building in Camden, North London, built in 1854 by a railway company as the Great Circular Engine House and used, albeit only for a few years, as a maintenance depot. It had a central turntable to switch engines into the surrounding maintenance bays. John Fulljames’s production for the Royal Opera House maintains the link with this central turntable with a doughnut-shaped staging with an outer raised ring for the singers with the orchestra in the central circle. Both rotated, the instrumentalists going very slowly clockwise (a bit slower than the hour hand of a watch) and the singers intermittently rotating anti-clockwise. on their circular stage.

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Salome

Richard Strauss: Salome
Royal Opera House. 8 January 2018

This third revival of David McVicar’s 2008 production of Salome is directed by Bárbara Lluch and conducted by Henrik Nánási. Although I saw the ROH’s predecessor to this production in the late 1990s, this was my first viewing of McVicar’s production. He adds several additional layers to Strauss’s (and Oscar Wilde’s) already complex take on the sparse biblical/Josephus story. Although Strauss’s music is firmly rooted in the post-Wagnerian idiom of the fin de siècle pre-Expressionist era, the nature of the plot continues to disturb and shock; perhaps more so today, when it is all too easy to relate aspects of opera plots like this to present day news items, people, and social concerns.

The setting was a large rather decrepit basement with bare walls, exposed pipework and a smattering of naked young women. Anybody expecting to have to wait an hour or so for the famous dance before a flash of female flesh had ample opportunities early on – but none in the actual dance. A sweeping staircase to one side led up to an almost hidden upper dining room where Herod and friends are feasting. All the action takes place in the basement space as the upstairs party slowly descend to the depths, in more ways than one. Most of the cast remained onstage throughout, along with several non-singing actors, mostly standing around watching events unfold. Towards the end, it was male nudity that was more apparent, with the executioner, for no apparent reason, stripping to the buff before descending into the cistern to behead Jokanaan. Although silent, as depicted in the libretto and music, this turned out to be a messy affair, the executioner returning completely covered in blood, front and back, top to toe. Continue reading