OPERA NEWS - Bérénice
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Opéra National de Paris

In Review Paris Berenice hdl 1218
Barbara Hannigan and Bo Skovhus in the world premiere of Bérénice
© Monika Rittershaus/Opéra National de Paris

CONTINUING THE PARIS OPERA'S POLICY of commissioning works inspired by great French literature, Racine’s Bérénice served as the inspiration for a new opera by Swiss composer Michael Jarrell, which had its premiere at the Palais Garnier on September 29in a production by Claus Guth. Paris Opera music director Philippe Jordan conducted. Racine’s Bérénice is a static psychological study of a foreign queen’s reaction when she is rejected by her lover, Titus, seemingly for reasons of political expediency; the playwright wrote, “There is absolutely no need to have blood and death in a tragedy.” 

Jarrell, who created his own libretto, gave much thought to the setting of the French language and Racine’s alexandrines; he created a text that was free of the strict classical form of the language while retaining the sense of the original. The libretto for the ninety-minute work, presented in four sequences, was generally clear and apt, combining natural speech rhythms with more elaborate vocal flourishes for musical emphasis and some electronic murmurings from a pre-recorded chorus. There was warmth and a sustained atmosphere of reflective grief in the strings at the opening of the orchestral score, powerfully conducted by Jordan. Guth created athletic and stylized movement for the singers against Christian Schmidt’s classical-style three-room set.

Jarrell was inspired by soprano Barbara Hannigan, whom he had admired in Benjamin’s Written on Skin and as Debussy’s Mélisande. Hannigan’s physical and vocal flexibility were fully exploited by the composer and by stage director Guth; Bérénice’s initial stoic acceptance of her rejection by Titus developed into more florid writing and dynamic physical movement as her impatience grew. As Bérénice tossed her shoes at Titus in frustration, it was legitimate to wonder whether a Racinian queen would behave in such an undignified manner, but Hannigan sang the role with consummate skill above the staff and in eloquent French. The role of Bérénice’s maid, Phénice, was played by the veteran Israeli choreographer and dancer Rina Schenfeld, star of the Batsheva dance company; the maid’s lines were spoken in Hebrew as a reminder that Bérénice was a foreign queen, an outsider who would never be accepted by Roman society.

As Titus, Bo Skovhus brought nobility as well as some finely sustained tone to his convincing portrayal of a man torn between love and duty. Baritone Ivan Ludlow was moving as Antiochus, who is painfully obliged to convey messages of separation from his friend Titus when he himself is in love with Bérénice. Antiochus’s confidant, the young Arsace, suited the piercing tenor of Julien Behr.

As the opera ended, there was a palpable sense of emptiness and despair as the three central characters each ended up in a state of glacial solitude. Racine’s final “hélas” produced a tragic orchestral sigh before a warm reception from the capacity audience. —Stephen J. Mudge

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