The 1736/1737 season wasn’t a particularly good period for
Handel. The rival London opera company, the Opera of The Nobility
gave its last performance. But the contest between the two companies
seems to have left the London opera audience rather sated with
the genre. Add to this that Handel himself suffered from some
sort of ‘paraletick disorder’ which left him unable to
conduct. He had completed his last opera of the season, Berenice
in January 1737 and it premiered in May 1737. It ran for
just four performances. The season finished with a revival of
Alcina and performances of Alexander’s Feast.
After this Handel took the cure in Aix La Chapelle.
The libretto for Berenice is based on one by Antonio
Salvi, which made its first appearance in Florence in 1709 to
music by Perti. It is possible that Handel encountered
it during his visit to Florence that year. No great changes
were made to the libretto prior to Handel’s setting it: the
recitatives were shortened and two new aria texts were introduced,
which may mean that Handel did the work himself.
The plot is the usual opera seria one; A loves B who
loves C who loves D. In this case Berenice, Queen of Egypt is
under pressure to choose a husband. She loves Demetrio who loves
her sister Selene who is in turn loved by Arsace. But Berenice
is being pressured by the Roman ambassador Fabio to choose Alessandro
who is actually in love with Berenice. It is a well enough put
together plot, but somehow it is hard to get quite as worked
up about the characters’ fates as in some of Handel’s other
Following the initial performances the opera was only revived
once during Handel’s lifetime, in Brunswick. Since then it has
rather been neglected. One of the reasons, perhaps, is that
unlike many of Handel’s other lesser known but nonetheless interesting
operas, it lacks a definitive hit number - something which helps
identify the piece.
Berenice has been recorded once before, in 1995 under
Rudolph Palmer. This new recording from Alan Curtis and Il Complesso
Barocco easily displaces the 1995 recording and looks set to
become definitive. For this disc, Curtis restores the longer
versions of two of the arias which Handel truncated before the
first performance (Alessandro’s Mio bel sol and Selene’s
Si poco e forte). Curtis also re-instates Berenice’s
Avvertite, mie pupille which was cut by Handel and was
the only time the composer used the key of C sharp minor in
The original cast consisted of Anna Strada del Po as Berenice,
the soprano castrato Gioacchino Conti as Alessandro, contralto
Francesca Bertolli as Selene and alto castrato Domenico Annibali
as Demetrio, with Maria Caterina Negri as Arsace. Curtis preserves
the gender assignment of roles as closely as possible, using
counter-tenor Franco Fagioli as Demetrio and mezzo-soprano Mary
Ellen Nesi as Selen. But the soprano castrato role of Alessandro
has to be sung nowadays by a female soprano, Ingela Bohlin.
Berenice is one of those slightly problematic operas
which seem to work better in the theatre where the gender of
the characters is (usually) more obvious. Here we have a pair
of low voices, one singing a man and one a woman, and a pair
of high voices similarly paired. Curtis has chosen a beautifully
balanced cast. But it is one where the voices are not highly
distinctive so that you sometimes have to concentrate to tell
whether Berenice or Alessandro is singing, or Selene or Arsace.
If you listen to the opera with the libretto these sort of problems
Klara Ek as Berenice has a lovely voice which adds an air of
fragility to the character whilst introducing an element of
steel where necessary. There is a slight quaver to her voice
which adds a note of character. Ingela Bohlin’s Alessandro is
delivered with a beautiful bright soprano voice, but which never
manages to sound in the least bit masculine. Having your lead
pair sung by two sopranos is something of a bonus when it comes
to the final duet, where the two voices intertwine beautifully.
Handel’s orchestration of the opera was quite restrained. But
he did showcase Giuseppi Sammartini’s oboe playing. Berenice’s
aria Chi t’indende has a wonderful obbligato oboe part.
Ek and oboist Patrick Beaugiraud combined magically here.
Romina Basso displays some nicely warm even tones as Selene,
but adds to this an admirable proficiency in the faster passages.
Her lover Demetrio is sung by counter-tenor Franco Fagioli.
Fagioli has a soft-grained, sometimes feminine-sounding voice,
but one which can take on the more dramatic edge when required.
Fagioli’s tones are rather distinctive, which might not always
be a good thing, but here ensures that his character is always
Mary Ellen News provides strong support in the relatively small
role of Arsace - she only gets two arias. And the lower voices
are well represented by Vito Priante as Aristobolo (Berenice’s
captain) and Anicio Zorzi Giutiniani as Fabio the Roman ambassador.
What the cast provides above all is intelligent balance. They
seem to be without a serious weak link. Each contributes a finely
musical performance whilst being fully alive to the technical
requirements so that I for once don’t have to add my usual moan
about singers smudging their runs.
Curtis keeps the piece moving without ever making it rushed
and the recitative feels swift without sounding skimped. He
doesn’t quite manage to get the feel of a live drama, but comes
This is one of Alan Curtis’s most recommendable recordings.
Whilst Handel’s opera might not be of top rank and there are
places where he seems to have been wool-gathering, there is
plenty of interest here. And with this intelligently balanced
performance, we have an account which certainly does the piece