■ The premiere of ‘Bérénice’ in Paris, with Barbara Hannigan in the title role the opéra de paris as part of its 350th birthday celebrations, was to craft a libretto from Racine’s lines that allowed them to resonate yet also, through reduction and concentration, to offer new perspectives. The result is a continuous 90-minute work of extraordinary intensity exploring the psychology of the principal characters, which is the locus of the work’s drama.
Jarrell’s expressionist musical language sits on an axis from Berg through Zimmermann to Reimann, and is therefore well suited to the projection of the mental suffering of Titus and Bérénice. The vocal writing ranges from sustained single notes for moments of reflection through to rapid, histrionic, leaping lines when characters are at their most anguished. Barbara Hannigan (Bérénice) and Bo Skovhus (Titus) gave exceptional performances (September 29) in creating roles that never let up, vocally or dramatically. Hannigan, as one has come to expect of her, delivered music of the most remarkable virtuosity while stretched across a chair, or leaping about, or lying flat on the ground. But it was the final five minutes of the opera that were the most powerful through their restraint, where Hannigan’s Bérénice, now numb from an excess of emotion, took her leave to slow, simple but intense music sung often without vibrato: the dignity and nobility of her sacrifice in the face of prejudice as she disappeared into a dark unknown was profound.
The two central characters were supported by strong performances from Ivan Ludlow as the troubled Antiochus, Alastair Miles as the priest-like Paulin, and Julien Behr as the youthful Arsace. Rina Schenfeld was Bérénice’s constant shadow Phénice, a role spoken throughout in Hebrew, emphasizing the queen’s status as outsider. Claus Guth directed his players with precision on a set (as prescribed by Racine) with a central office flanked by the rooms of Titus and Bérénice. Haunting black-and-white visions of their inner fears (a drowning Bérénice, a tormented Titus) were projected onto gauze. Lighting effects made the walls quake as the characters’ agonies distorted their vision. The only glimpses of an exterior world came from the audio-visual projections of the indistinct faces and voices of the crowd, the murmuring of the people of Rome certainly, but just as likely the looming forces of latter-day populism.
It is the orchestra, however, that shapes, paces and punctuates this drama. Clusters, interweaving lines, long-held notes, ominous chords, sparse points of sound: there is a
Opera, December 2018