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Charlotte Beament [Photo by Boyd Gilmour Photography]
21 Mar 2016

Handel’s Berenice, London

1737 was Handel’s annus horribilis. His finances were in disarray and his opera company was struggling in the face of the challenge presented by the rival Opera of the Nobility. The strain and over-work led to a stroke, as the Earl of Shaftesbury reported:

Handel’s Berenice, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Charlotte Beament [Photo by Boyd Gilmour Photography]


‘Great fatigue and disappointment, affected him so much, that he was this Spring struck with the Palsy, which took entirely away, the use of 4 fingers of his right hand; and totally disabled him from Playing: And when the heats of the Summer 1737 came on, the Disorder seemed at times to affect his Understanding.’

Amid such strife, Berenice was first performed at the Covent Garden Theatre in London on 18 May 1737, under the direction of Handel’s assistant John Christopher Smith. It was Handel’s worst flop. It is possible that the composer did not attend any of the four performances given before the run closed. After this Handel travelled to Aix La Chapelle to find a cure for his paraletick disorder. The opera was never revived although Handel plundered the score for several later works, including the Music for the Royal Fireworks which made use of the Sinfonia to Act 3 (which was not performed here at St George’s Hanover Square).

Emma_Stannard.pngEmma Stannard

The opera, based on the life of Cleopatra Berenice, daughter of Ptolemy IX, presents a typical seria erotic entanglement — though the usual quadrangle of thwarted lovers is further complicated by an additional fifth loser-in-love (thus leaving one spouse-less aristocrat at the close). Berenice loves Demetrio but, for the good of her country, she is advised to marry Alessandro, Prince of Rome. When he is introduced to Berenice, by Fabio, it is love at first sight for Alessandro, but Berenice is not so keen. The Roman prince is told that if the Queen won’t have him, then he’ll have to marry her sister, Selene, but the latter loves Demetrio with whom she is plotting to overthrow Berenice. Berenice tells her sister she must marry the besotted Arsace. The ensuing romantic stalemate threatens to erupt into war between Rome and Egypt. Berenice, in turmoil, orders Demetrio’s decapitation. After entreaties from all, and Alessandro’s declaration that he will not exercise his right to claim Berenice as he wants her to love him freely and not under coercion, she relents and decides that she does love the noble Alessandro after all. Demetrio is freed and a double wedding is planned, leaving only Arsace unloved and un-partnered.

If Antonio Salvi’s 1709 libretto wasn’t complicated enough, then Handel’s truncation of the text resulted in inconsistencies and non sequiturs which render the plot pretty unfathomable. But, David Bates and La Nuova Musica, together with a fine cast of young soloists, gave us a rare chance to hear a live performance of the work, and they made a credible case for the opera despite its uneven musical merits and the frequent nonsensical plot turns.

Berenice is certainly melodious, and the Queen has the lion’s share of the arias. In the title role, Charlotte Beament produced quite a steely tone at times — suggestive of regal bite - yet was also able to access lots of colour. The soprano coped well with the angular lines of the opening aria, ‘Co, che servire altrui’, acting effectively with the voice; and, after such rigid determination — Berenice will not have her romantic affairs dictated by others — Beament introduced a softness and warmth in some of her later arias, such as Act 2’s ‘Sempre dolci ed amorose’, which is essentially a bare-faced declaration to Demetrio that ‘I like you when you’re angry’! She captured the conflicting emotions of ‘Traditore, traditore’ though she didn’t quite pull of the final trill; and Act 3’s ‘Chi t'intende?’, with its beautiful oboe obbligato (presumably designed to showcase Giuseppi Sammartini’s oboe playing), demonstrated Beament’s vocal stamina. The solemnity of ‘Avvertite, mie pupille’ effectively conveyed the crisis in the Egyptian Queen’s heart.

Counter-tenor Michal Czerniawski showed dramatic discernment in crafting the character of Demetrio. The simplicity and lucidity of his Act 1 aria ‘No, soffrir non può', in which voice and cello engaged in relaxed exchanges, revealed a well-rounded tone and unforced upper register. Czerniawski’s lovely sweet arioso at start of Act 2 — part of one of Handel’s more successful sequences, and one which was well paced by Bates — gave way to disappointed envy in the heightened coloratura of ‘Su Megera, Tesifone, Aletto!’, the phrases of which were intelligently shaped. Czerniawski’s countertenor has a dramatic edge, as was apparent in the nimble vocalism of ‘Sì, tra i ceppi', a volatile aria di bravura which revealed the voice’s brightness and strength.

As Alessandro, Anat Edri displayed a clear spinto, forming a pleasing contrast with Beament. Edri sang with lightness and agility; she negotiated the coloratura confidently though she occasionally pushed the voice a bit hard, risking a dash of stridency, and she ‘threw’ her voice somewhat recklessly at the upper notes of the large leaps of the Act 2 aria in which Alessandro refuses to accept Berenice’s hand if it offered in fear not love (‘La bella mano’). Edri did, however, show judicious restraint in the use of vibrato in the Act 2 arioso in which Alessandro indulges in abstract reflections on love.

Emma Stannard was a superb, dark-toned Selene, displaying pleasing evenness and warmth. Her Act 1 aria, ‘Penso, timor’, conveyed the spirited princess’s emotional turbulence and Stannard achieved continuity of line through the short motifs and frequent rests. She produced stylish trills in the Act 2 finale ‘Si poco e forte’ which concluded with a delicate playout from La Nuova Musica. In ‘Tortorella che rimira’, Stannard crooned beautifully in imitation of turtle doves, above teasing string pizzicatos; but she was also able to negotiate the demands of the fioriture with confidence.

Some of best singing of the evening came from Christopher Turner, as Fabio, the Roman messenger; the tenor demonstrated great range too. There was both humour — the buzzing bees were embodied by the violins’ deliciously delicate triplets — and gentleness, in the relaxed, curving phrases of ‘Vedi l’ape che ingegnosa’, whose beauty ironically undercuts the courtier’s advice that Berenice should love for gain and not for pleasure. And the tenor injected some ardency in the B section of this aria, foreshadowing the impressive vigour of ‘Guerra e pace, Egizia terra’ in Act 2, in which Fabio sets out his country’s ultimatum: peace or war.

In the bass role of Aristobolo, Tim Dickinson underscored the higher roles effectively, although his appealing bass was not always even across the range. Arsace was sung very competently by counter-tenor Timothy Morgan; the part lies quite low but Morgan demonstrated flexibility in the coloratura — impressively off-score — and in Act 1’s ‘Senza nutrice alcuna’, Handel’s accompaniment was often helpful. In Arsace’s Act 2 aria, ‘Amore contro Amor’, Morgan produced a clear sound and true intonation in the coloratura roulades.

The opera is lightly scored — perhaps financial straits necessitated orchestral austerity — and there are no parts for brass and percussion. The leanness of the string writing was emphasised further by the use of just one player per part here, and the strings were supplemented by oboes and continuo. La Nuova Musica played with clarity and agility — noticeably in the poised first movement of the Act 1 Sinfonia — although occasionally the sound was a bit bottom-heavy. In the buoyant fourth movement of this Sinfonia, the players emphasised the variety of dynamics and made most of the major/minor contrasts.

Bates had a good sense of the dramatic rhythm and structure. The recitative felt swift but not precipitous ­ and there were some dynamic exchanges. At times the continuo was appealingly expressive — as in the exchange in Act 1 between Arsace and Selene, in which the latter pretends to have feelings for the besotted prince, and in Demetrio’s Act 2 reflections on Selene’s imagined faithlessness: here, the rich, dark theorbo emphasised the harmonic piquancy and led to deft, scurrying instrumental gestures in the ensuing — and rare — accompanied recitative.

Salvi’s libretto was sub-titled, ‘The Contest of Love and Politics’: ‘Ill-begotten politics’ are the ‘Tyrant of the affections’ so Aristobolo tells us. The feisty sisters refuse to be Roman Emperor’s marital poker chips and its conflict all the way until the final duet, where the two voices of Beament and Edri intertwined enchantingly. Bates and his team made a good effort to capture the prevailing ‘darkness’ — which is only alleviated in final chorus when the ‘rivalries of politics and love have ended’ — but I felt that some of the opera’s wicked mischief failed to shine through. There was an attempt to bring the concert performance to dramatic life: entrances and exits were made from different directions and the soloists moved around — Berenice’s first aria was delivered from pulpit, emphasising her regal imperiousness. The opera may lack a ‘sure fire hit’ number, and it was hard to feel much interest in the characters’ fates, but there was much to enjoy.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Berenice — Charlotte Beament, Selene — Emma Stannard, Alessandro — Anat Edri, Demetrio — Michal Czerniawski, Arsace — Timothy Morgan, Fabio — Christopher Turner, Aristobolo — Tim Dickinson; La Nuova Musica: director — David Bates, guest leader — Rodolpho Richter.St. George’s Hanover Square, London; Thursday 17th March 2016.

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