Handel’s Berenice was written at a time when the composer desperately needed a success. By 1737 he had been competing for audiences with the rival Opera of the Nobility for four years, but unfortunately things did not play out as he had hoped. Pressures, including the work involved to complete the piece, led him to have a stroke, and the opera, conducted by John Christopher Smith as the composer’s right hand was temporarily paralysed, lasted a mere four performances. Although it was revived in Germany in 1743, and has enjoyed a little interest since the 1960s as Handel’s operas have come back into fashion, this performance from La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was possibly only the fifth ever of the work in London.
Set in Egypt in around 80 BC, Berenice tells the story of the eponymous Egyptian Queen. Prince Alessandro of Rome woos her but, despite such a marriage being politically expedient, she shuns his advances because she loves Prince Demetrio of Macedonia. The latter, however, desires Berenice’s sister Selene, and the situation is further complicated when Prince Arsace declares his love for Selene, and Berenice helps to further his cause. There is a happy ending, however, when Berenice sees that Alessandro seeks her purely out of love rather than for political expediency, and Arsace volunteers to step aside so that Selene and Demetrio can be happy together.
Handel’s starting point was the libretto of Antonio Salvi’s Berenice, regina d’Egitto which had been set to music by Giocomo Antonio Perti in 1709. During the process of adaptation, however, recitatives were pruned and around ten arias cut, and it does sometimes show. When we hear that Rome wills Berenice to marry Alessandro without delay, and very soon after Berenice has it in her head that Rome intends Alessandro for Selene it seems likely that several intermediate plot points were lost during the cuts. The confusion created by this may have contributed to the work’s unpopularity while, even acknowledging that all Handel operas follow a similar formula, the sheer extent to which it sees a series of episodes in which characters simply indulge in their personal dilemmas suggests it would not have made for a dramatic staging.
If one can move beyond these points, however, the piece does have much merit. Although the dilemma between private love and public responsibility is the basis of many an opera, the manner in which the issue is explored here is particularly effective. The fact that the Roman Ambassador Fabio begins by instructing Alessandro to pursue ‘Love for gain, not for pleasure’ means there is a clear starting point from which we can then witness the narrative bringing us to entirely the opposite conclusion. Similarly, the thesis that if one remains true to love good political outcomes will follow represents a development in thinking on the vast majority of operas that present the same original dichotomy.
The music is interesting both in its own right, and in the way in which it supports the dilemmas presented in the story. For example, when Fabio sings of the bee who flies to pretty flowers to gain nectar rather than simply for their beauty (hence instructing Alessandro to see love simply as a means to an end), this insect is represented in the violins. Berenice’s ‘Chi t’intende’, in which she dwells on the tribulations of love, is accompanied by solo oboe, while the opera ends with a minuet in D minor denoting the sincerity of Alessandro’s love.
La Nuova Musica consisted of (with just one to each part) first and second violin, viola, cello, double bass, oboe, theorbo and harpsichord (played by director David Bates), while the singers proved very strong. There was a pleasing edge to Charlotte Beament’s soprano that enabled her to delve deep into Berenice’s dilemmas and emotions while, as Selene, Emma Stannard’s nuanced mezzo-soprano revealed great maturity. As Alessandro, Anat Edri’s soprano was sweet yet focused and precise. The countertenors in the roles of Demetrio and Arsace respectively also excelled, with Michal Czerniawski demonstrating highly skilful vocal acrobatics and Timothy Morgan capturing Arsace’s love struck innocence in his sound. Tenor Christopher Turner as Fabio and bass Tim Dickinson as the Captain Aristobolo were also in fine voice.
St George’s, Hanover Square was a beautiful setting for the performance, although with all of the pews in the nave being on virtually the same level as the ‘stage’, many people struggled to peer over those in front to see everything that was happening. This proved just how important it is that we connect with faces, expressions and emotions, even in a concert performance, and the group responded as well as could be expected to the challenge set by the venue. Soloists performed some sections on raised blocks behind the orchestra and others in front of it, while the occasional piece of recitative was sung walking down the aisle and one aria was even delivered from the pulpit.
This performance of Berenice was part of the London Handel Festival, which continues until 11 April. For details of all events visit the London Handel Festival website.