Handel moved to London in 1712, and the Church of St George, Hanover Square was consecrated in 1725: with its noble Georgian proportions (designed by an assistant of Wren himself, John James) and sumptuous Grinling Gibbons-style carved wooden altarpiece, the church looks and feels like a perfect place to listen to Baroque opera. To listen, but in the case of this rare performance of Handel’s Berenice, not always to see: the unfortunate combination of James’s hefty pillars, and director David Bates’ decision to bring his singers out repeatedly in front of his orchestra, rather than keeping them massed on the sanctuary, meant that sight-lines were regularly obscured for some of us for prolonged periods, making this somewhat mobile concert performance quite a task for the imagination. However, taut and skilful playing from La Nuova Musica, conducted from the harpsichord with joyful dynamism by Bates, and some excellent singing, made for an evening of gorgeous music, if not dramatic excitement.
In fact, one of the main reasons Berenice, regina d’Egitto is so rare is its notable lack of dramatic punch. Despite some fabulous arias, it’s not a magnetic evening. The plot revolves around Berenice’s proud reluctance to accept Alessandro, a husband sent to the queen of Egypt as a political order by the Roman Senate; but, predictably, after a few misunderstandings involving love triangles with other people (including Berenice’s sister Selene, the young nobleman Arsace and a local prince, Demetrio), Berenice and Alessandro do accept one another, though for true love’s sake rather than diplomacy’s. Cue a few arias about selfless love, the power of love, and how we all hate politics: so far, so predictable, but Handel’s creativity here is all on the musical side, with some particularly intriguing arias for Queen Berenice, using unaccompanied moments to spinetingling effect. A little comic relief from the Roman envoy Fabio, and some world-weary wisdom from Berenice’s retainer Aristobolo, complete the piece. It’s no corker, and although nice to hear, doesn’t need to re-enter the repertoire any time soon.
With everyone singing from the stave, some singers sounded better prepared than others, and the piece as a whole felt slightly under-rehearsed, despite its polished orchestral accompaniment. The evening was rescued overall by fine central performances from Charlotte Beament as Berenice, and Michael Czerniawski as Demetrio, while Christopher Turner added pleasing energy with his very well-sung Fabio, his clear Italian diction a constant joy, as well as his subtle comic instinct. Fabio’s best aria, “Vedi l’ape,” literally buzzes with bees in the strings, and Turner used well-judged, not overly florid ornamentation to harmonise with (rather than fighting) Handel’s pictorial score here.
Beament’s Berenice grew in queenly power and assurance all evening, her soprano becoming ever more supple and thrilling in a nicely characterised performance, with the fabulously angry “Traditore, traditore,” and “Chi t’intende? O cieca”, as well as the resolutely tragic “Avvertite, mie pupille” all real highlights. Czerniawski showed his tender countertenor can be penetratingly dramatic, Demetrio coming across with passion and depth as well as some breathtaking ornamentation in “Sù, Megera, Tisifone, Aletto!” over Handel’s unusually jagged, episodic accompaniment to evoke Hell’s furies. Demetrio’s “Sì, tra I ceppi” was stunningly delivered, Czerniawski exploring its lovely structure with obvious enjoyment.
Anat Edri brought plenty of talented acting to the trouser-role of Alessandro, but didn’t always sound well prepared musically, her soprano occasionally rushing or catching especially in her early arias, unlike her ordinarily smooth, stellar approach. However, Edri gained in poise gradually, and her final exquisite love duet with Berenice, “Quel bel labbro,” was beautifully balanced and full of glowing warmth. Tim Dickinson’s warm and agile bass made a good job of Aristobolo, bringing all possible characterisation to this small role.
Emma Stannard’s dusky mezzo suited Selene reasonably well, finding her finest moment in the exquisite “Tortorella che rimira”, a cool, plangent aria with a lovely instrumental opening, though elsewhere, Stannard’s cloudy consonants and tendency to swallow vowels often obscured the libretto, in a performance which did not always complete Handel’s challenges. We had a nice debut from Timothy Morgan as Arsace, finding increasing confidence on stage with a fresh, youthful quality to his countertenor.
The final chorus, “Con verace dolce pace,” sounded magnificently rich as the whole small ensemble sang together, finishing on a buoyant note. But one can’t help feeling that at least part of the jubilation was down to the fact that everyone had got away with it – with this much talent available, more rehearsal might have produced a far more compelling, richer performance.
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