Opera Reviews
25 February 2024
Untitled Document

The density of the plot is illuminated by the lightness of the music

by Catriona Graham

Handel: Berenice
International Handel Festival Göttingen
7 May 2016

At some time, one hopes, the convoluted plot of Handel’s opera Berenice was half-ways comprehensible to the audience.  Obviously Rome is claiming hegemony over Egypt, because Rome has sent envoy Fabio to arrange for Prince Alessandro to marry Queen Berenice. Only, she fancies Demetrio, who fancies Berenice’s sister Selene, who fancies Arsace. So, when Berenice rejects Alessandro, she tries to palm him off on her sister … Then there is the straight guy, Aristobolo, Berenice’s counsellor, who appears every so often to give some much needed bottom to all these high emotions among the upper voices.

Or we could forget the plot and just enjoy the music, played with charm by La Nuova Musica, conducted with verve by David Bates, in a concert performance for the Göttingen International Handel Festival.

Of course, as Selene, Giuseppina Bridelli had an unfair advantage in an Italian opera. She did not just sing the words, she lived every consonant and vowel. And her second act aria Si poco è forte dunque la tua fede had a gorgeous dance-rhythm that just tripped along. Arsace, her affianced, was relatively passive – much of the time answering tutto farò …, effectively ‘whatever’, and perfectly suited to Raffaele Pe’s high and light voice.  But he did not lack robustness for the more impassioned moments.  

Alessandro was sung by Anat Edri – bright, forthright and blending well with Mireille Asselin (Berenice).  Edri impressed with the aria Quell’oggetto che è caro  followed by a delightful duet from Asselin and Michal Czerniawski (Demetrio).  In fact, Czerniawski was the stand-out performance of the night, his singing intelligent and beautifully judged.

Christopher Turner well conveyed the rising exasperation of Fabio with the politicking of the Egyptians. His Bee Aria, in Act 1, was accompanied by some very nice string-playing indeed. Timothy Dickinson’s rich bass endowed Aristobolo with gravitas, not least when breaking the news that Demetrio has double-crossed her and is planning a coup to place Selene on the throne.

The orchestra was excellent, giving a rocking bass to Berenice’s Sempre dolci ed amorose vocal flirtation with Demetrio. Chi t’intende? Berenice’s duet with the oboe was enchanting, as was Selene’s aria Tortorella, accompanied by theorbo and bass with delicate upper strings.

At the end, with Berenice persuaded not to kill Demetrio for his treachery, renouncing him to Selene and accepting Alessandro’s hand, all joined in the final chorus, which showcased just how balanced the voices were.

Yes, the opera may have fallen into obscurity because of the plot. but, surely, there is scope for a staging, and making this score better known.

The performance will be broadcast by NDR on 12 June 2016 at 22:00 CET.

Text © Catriona Graham
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