George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Berenice, Regina d’Egitto, HWV 38 (1737) [166.35]
Berenice – Klara Ek (soprano)
Alessandro – Ingela Bohlin (soprano)
Demetrio – Franco Fagioli (counter-tenor)
Selene – Romina Basso (mezzo)
Arsace – Mary-Ellen Nesi (mezzo)
Aristobolo – Vito Priante (bass)
Fabio – Anicio Zorzi Giutiniani (tenor)
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
rec. Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, 13-19 November 2009
VIRGIN CLASSICS 50999 6285362 0 [3 CDs: 60.29 + 51.14 + 54.52]

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 operas.

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 an oratorio.

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 disappear.

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 distinct.

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 pretty close.

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 justice.

Robert Hugill

Plenty of interest here. An intelligently balanced performance which certainly does the piece justice.