Lovers of crimes of passion and barbaric vengeance, rein in your desires: Bérénice will not slake your thirst. Yet it was still a tragedy that saw life for the first time at the Palais Garnier on Saturday, albeit a decorous tragedy in which the tears that are shed dissolve into resignation rather than blood. Selected and reworked by the composer Michael Jarrell for this new work, Racine's elegant verses are breathed back to life. And while physical violence isn't part of the agenda, their emotional impact is made by the voice, heightened by a love triangle that masterfully paints the ambivalence of the characters.

Barbara Hannigan (Bérénice), Rina Schenfeld, Julien Behr, Ivan Ludlow, Alastair Miles, Bo Skovhus © Monika Rittershaus / Opéra national de Paris
Barbara Hannigan (Bérénice), Rina Schenfeld, Julien Behr, Ivan Ludlow, Alastair Miles, Bo Skovhus
© Monika Rittershaus / Opéra national de Paris

Written in 1670, Racine's tragedy evokes a plot from ancient Rome: Bérenice and Titus love each other, but he must give up his foreign-born lover at the point of coming to power, because “l’hymen chez les Romains n’admet qu’une Romaine : Rome hait tous les rois et Bérénice est reine" (For marriage in Rome, Roman blood must be seen; Rome hates every king, Bérénice is a queen). At their side appears Antiochus, comrade in arms of Titus who is secretly in love with Berenice; each of these three protagonists is supported by a confident. At the end of a long road scattered with thwarted hopes, the heroes sacrifice their passions on the altar of duty.

Jarrell unfolds the plot in linear fashion, without attempt at formal innovation, an approach which leaves an aftertaste of déja-vu – particularly because the original Alexandrine verses, condensed as they must be by the constraints of creating a libretto, anchor us in a strangely dry classicism. When Racine's language, so moving in the theatre, is brought to opera, it seems outdated and has difficulty in making us empathise with suffering of the characters: eventually we get fed up with how long their break-up takes.

The literary classicism is accentuated by classical architecture: high walls divide the stage into three rooms with regular lines and scant furnishing. But still, what displeases in the libretto seduces in Claus Guth's staging: the protagonists struggle within this rigid setting and express their distress by throwing themselves against walls that they cannot break. Unable to dig through marble, they sketch the outline of a fervently desired grave in the sand that covers the ground. In the image of today's people of power (as Guth sees it), yesterday's potentates fight impotently within constraining shackles both moral and physical: the luxury of their surroundings cannot mask the emptiness of their power. More flexible, the costumes display the human being under the imperial cloak, the characters bare their body and soul, the queen in a nightgown, the emperor in a singlet. As stated explicitly in interviews with Guth, this display of impotence behind the mask of riches remains almost imperceptible in a staging that takes care not to offend those in its sights...

Barbara Hannigan (Bérénice), Bo Skovhus (Titus) © Monika Rittershaus / Opéra national de Paris
Barbara Hannigan (Bérénice), Bo Skovhus (Titus)
© Monika Rittershaus / Opéra national de Paris

Jarrell's vocal writing displays similar subtlety. In the title role, the splendid Barbara Hannigan embodies the voice of passion and gives free rein to her emotions with agile and voluble phrasing. The final scene enlightens her personality in a new way, her singing seeming constrained as soon as she submits to the demands of duty. Conversely, Bo Skovhus's majestic Titus expresses himself in long and monotone phrases, his resignation expressed by rigidity of voice. But at times, the emperor allows emotion to swamp him: at this point, the singer shows his most wonderful effects: cries of distress and heavy-breathed sighs.

The rest of the cast comes well up to the standardof the royal couple, from the warm timbre of Ivan Ludlow (Antiochus) to the austerity of Alastair Miles (Paulin), by way of the enthusiastic Julien Behr (Arsace). Still, the vocal writing has a somewhat regrettable systematic feel to it: long held notes and a complete absence of contemporary soundscape. Which is particularly surprising since the title role was made to measure for Barbara Hannigan, who is famous for her delirious interpretation of Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre, a work which is considerably more varied in this aspect. The lack of individuality of the voices impairs understanding of the text, especialy when several men are singing at the same time. On the other hand, the singular contributions by Phénice (the only one to be speaking rather than singing, in Hebrew to remind one of Bérénice's Jewish origins), suffer a level of artificiality, with poorly balanced sound and a Racine text that in no way evokes the kingdom of Judea. A better effect is provided by electronics combining with the orchestra to give the recorded whisperings of a Roman people which decides the fate of its emperor from off-stage.

Barbara Hannigan (Bérénice), Bo Skovhus (Titus) © Monika Rittershaus / Opéra national de Paris
Barbara Hannigan (Bérénice), Bo Skovhus (Titus)
© Monika Rittershaus / Opéra national de Paris

In the pit, orchestral profusion heightens the monotony of the voices, its timbre carefully balanced under the baton of Philippe Jordan. Contrasting atmostpheres flow from moving harmonic fields, the breaking of waves or nervous silences that match the dramatic meanderings. None the less, this carefully crafted texture is made from well-proven effects: don't expect the unexpected in this opera. If one's interest is in novel sonic experiences, what's lacking here is the prophetic exaltation which made Jarrell's Cassandre such a success. None the less, the conventionality of the music and the breathlessness of the libretto do not eclipse the merits of a high quality production, served by an unimpeachable cast.

***11