Handel Festival productions at the Halle Opera House are unpredictable in their effect. Last year’s staged Jephtha was incoherent, at best. This year’s Berenice did not plumb those depths, but the fine singing and generally high standard of the orchestral playing, not to mention the good natured knockabout acting from the cast, almost made up for the totally over-the-top distraction of Jochen Biganzoli's production.

Samuel Mariño (Alessandro) © Anna Kolata
Samuel Mariño (Alessandro)
© Anna Kolata

This was post post-modernity with all the stops out. The show opened with a convex glitter curtain, with a cleaning woman in blue tunic and yellow gloves sweeping around it, and taking a mobile phone call. The conductor entered, the overture began and, with the Allegro, the curtain started to pulsate with glittering patches, resolving into almost-images, until it was drawn up. 

The setting was revealed as a revolving series of compartments with doors in the partitions, through which the soloists scrambled from left to right, in pursuit of/from each other; this occurred throughout the opera at regular intervals. The real horror came with the bank of screens above the revolving set, which mercilessly bombarded us with typical screen images: news stories, advertisements, Facebook/ Twitter/ Instagram pages, personal email messages (sometimes seeming to be germane to the plot but not generally there long enough to decipher as to their import), cat videos and all the other things those of us not living under a rock are subject to much of the time. Thankfully, this abated considerably in the second half. Throughout, the soloists constantly pulled out their mobiles (“Handy” in German), to ring, text, read and take selfies; video cameras were used to show us singers in close up, and so on. 

Romelia Lichtenstein (Berenice) © Anna Kolata
Romelia Lichtenstein (Berenice)
© Anna Kolata

To try and keep one’s mind on the actual plot was not that easy, not helped by the constant changes of costume and identity, including a degree of gender-bending. Costuming was pre-steampunk – perhaps horsepower punk? – with brocaded 18th-century frock coats worn over tight leather pants and motorcycle boots, for example. Most of the cast started off with long straggly wigs, variously cast aside; for much of the second half, the singers appeared in purely modern dress. Selene was transformed into a sort of goth punk, with a black bob and t-shirt featuring a silver skull and bones motif. The cleaner turned out to be Arsace, moving through the frock coat and fright wig image to a camouflage jacket and headband guerrilla outfit, and back into a cleaner at the end.

Svitlana Slyvia (Selene) and Filippo Mineccia (Demetrio © Anna Kolata
Svitlana Slyvia (Selene) and Filippo Mineccia (Demetrio
© Anna Kolata

The opera was performed in two parts, with an interval halfway through Act 2, after Arsace’s “Amore contro amor”. Before the curtain fell, the plugs were pulled and all the screens went dark – to an audible sigh of relief from some. A few arias were scrapped, and others were moved about in the second half, with no evident violence to the plot, which had become fairly sketchy in any case.

The Handelfestspiel-Orchester played well under Jorg Halubek, the only annoyance being a trickle of percussion throughout (not in the score); for some reason this seems to have become a Halle speciality, but nowhere near as bad as the organ in last year’s Jephtha. 

Samuel Mariño (Alessandro) © Anna Kolata
Samuel Mariño (Alessandro)
© Anna Kolata

It was good to see Romelia Lichtenstein back in the title role, which she despatched with her fine rich soprano, personal charm and willingness to go along with any amount of silliness.  Her aria “Chi t’intende” was a highlight, as she duetted with the oboist, pursuing him across the stage and finishing with a kiss and a selfie. Once again she was paired with Filippo Mineccia (as in 2015’s Silla) but this time he played Demetrio, with whom she does not end up. He is another fine singer with a ringing unforced countertenor voice and impressive high notes. Alessandro was sung by young Venezuelan countertenor Samuel Mariño, who had a fine stage presence but whose constant vibrato is a bit of a worry in such a young singer.  Last year’s Storgé, Svitlana Slyvia has emerged from that gloom to reveal an attractive mezzo voice and quite a sense of fun.  The cleaner/Arsace was sung by Franziska Gottwald who is a very fine singer indeed, but her voice seemed somewhat swallowed up in this venue, although it was evident that her technique and Baroque stylings are as elegant as ever.  Resident Halle bass Ki-Hyun Park, appearing as Aristobolo in a brilliant glitter suit, made as ever the most of his small part.  The audience lapped up every bit of it.