I tend to lose the plot - quite literally - when critics reprise the dénouement of baroque operas. In fact, as one who loses the plot even as I’m reading its synopsis, I tend to work on the principle that it’s best to avoid plot-based discussions if it can be helped. Sometimes this makes for an unbalanced review, especially when, as here, we’re discussing a work that has seldom been recorded, and is not often staged. But I prefer it to regurgitating the comings and goings, the ins and outs, of impenetrable machinations, improbable names, sex changes, dynastic intrigues and revenge a-plenty. Besides, as a mere hack myself, I have a sneaking feeling that large swathes of plot discussion means the critic hasn’t much to say about the recording itself.
Berenice was written in 1737 for the jaded London opera scene. It was a decided failure and there were fewer than a handful of Covent Garden performances before it was dropped. Even its setting of 80BC Alexandria couldn’t excite the gentry. And there things languished. It really is, however, remarkable to read that the work wasn’t revived until 1985, a year I remember well because my cassette recorder almost overheated due to seemingly constant BBC broadcasts of Handel operas and oratorios in the tercentenary year of his death.
Handel’s scoring in Berenice is quite discreet, and there are few colouristic or genuinely pictorial suggestions in his writing. As an opera it has cohesion but lacks real standout arias. That, I’m afraid, is the brutal truth. However a lack of such things doesn’t necessarily condemn a work to perpetual shade and its restoration in this recording affords one the chance to listen to it ‘in the round’ and to appraise its strengths and weaknesses, something obviously that applies to the performances as well.
By far the longest aria is Act III’s Chi t’intende with its expansive role for the oboe, played expressively by Patrick Beaugiraud, and very finely sung by Klara Ek, who sings Berenice. There are soliloquies for both in this aria, which ranges from intimate to florid in Handel’s best, most intense style. Ek makes a good impression; she doesn’t emote, or sacrifice fine tone and breath control to momentary opportunities for display. Thus her last act aria Avveritite, mie pupile marries depth with a measured control. When she joins with the Alessandro of Ingela Bohlin, their two sopranos shadow each other with perfect symmetry
Romina Basso takes the part of Selene and she impresses with her well deployed mezzo. In an aria such as the subtly accompanied Act I Gelo, avvampo she shows flair and imagination. In comparison we have the masculine and far heavier mezzo of Mary-Ellen Nesi, whose appropriation of the role of Arsace, the vassal prince, is commendably intense, and vocally plausible.
Franco Fagioli is the counter-tenor. His voice is very masculine, if I can put it that way, and will be at odds with the possible expectations of Anglo-American listeners at least - that is if those aural expectations happen to include (say) David Daniels Fagiola’s divisions are fine but his voice sits lower than one might expect and can be mezzo-ish and hooty - I find him so in the springy duet that ends Act I, Se il mio amor fu il tuo delitto. Vito Priante takes the role of Aristobolo, a captain and confidant of the title role, Berenice. He is bluffly confident, characterful, but without much of a trill.
Berenice makes great play of terse, almost interjectory arias, especially in Act II. It adds a brittle, onrush to the work and this is a quality duly realised by Alan Curtis and his forces. He has also restored some cuts. There is another recording of the work to note, that on Newport NPD85620/3, directed by Rudolph Palmer, but it’s not one to which I have had access for reviewing purposes. With full texts and very helpful booklet notes this set is finely armed. As indicated, the performances are a little variable but never worryingly so, the opera flawed to an extent, but fully deserving of this fine recording.
see also review by Robert Hugill