Soporific Berenice (London Handel Fest, 17 March 2016)
One year to the day after that memorable Catone in Utica we returned to St George’s Hanover Sq for another London Handel Fest event. But was this as successful as last year’s romp?
Berenice: Charlotte Beament soprano
Selene: Emma Stannard mezzo
Alessandro: Anat Edri soprano
Demetrio: Michal Czerniawski countertenor
Arsace: Timothy Morgan countertenor
Fabio: Christopher Turner tenor
Aristobolo: Tim Dickinson bass
La Nuova Musica | St George’s Hanover Sq
Sadly it was not. We learn that 1737 was not Handel’s year, the constant stress of the music business taking its toll on his health to the point where he could not conduct Berenice. Though the work contains some interesting orchestral ideas, it trails rather tiringly by act III.
I wouldn’t blame that on the tempi, which seemed to me decent, but on the work itself and occasionally on the singers. There are two arias (one for Berenice, one for Alessandro) in act III so long I was starting to lose the will to live. During Berenice’s one I had time to imagine (in details) her children’s children getting old whilst yet another da capo was being navigated. Imagine having to sit through all of Ginevra’s laments back to back without a break in between. And this aria was actually chipper, with some nice accompaniment (violin? oboe? Excuse me if I forget, I was fighting sleep and losing. There was nice writing for both solo violin and oboe in several places. Whilst we’re on insturments, I enjoyed the solid work by the low strings throughout – when conscious). That wasn’t even as bad as Alessandro’s, which had the added badluck of coming after this marathon on my patience. By the middle of Alessandro’s I was praying for a crack or a broken string, collapsing harspichord, anything to make the proceedings more alive.
But what’s Berenice about? She’s a Queen of Egypt (daughter of Ptolemy IX of Handel’s Tolomeo fame) who wants to marry Demetrio, a Macedonian prince who loves and is loved by her sister, Selene. Together these two are plotting to overthrow her with the help of our old friend Mitridate (re di Ponto) – who does not appear in this opera. Powers that be in Rome decree that Berenice, as vassal, shall marry who they want and that of course isn’t Demetrio. It’s a patrician called Alessandro. Though the enemy, Alessandro shows he’s already developed the Roman trademark maganimous ruler skills and over three acts wows Berenice with his honourable behaviour. In the end everyone couples up “as they should” (sadly save for Fabio and Aristobolo).
After catching my ear in Orontea (also presented by La Nuova Musica), I was looking forward to hear Michal Czerniawski again. He did not disappoint. I was basking in his gentle manner of singing every time one of Demetrio’s arias came up. He’s perfect for hoplessly romantic characters. I enjoyed Christopher Turner more this time as Fabio (the Roman ambassador) as he took his character to town vocally and dramatically and seemed to be having quite a bit of fun. Emma Stannard (Selene) has a proper mezzo voice and I thought she was pretty good, especially in her interactions with Demetrio. Charlotte Beament in the title role was more interesting dramatically than in her vocal phrasing, especially when she stormed around in scorned queen manner or presided from the pulpit (using the entire hall to place singers was a welcome touch). Anat Edri as her Alessandro had one moment (a lyrical aria in act II I think) where I remember some nicely floated notes but otherwise I could not follow her character at all, vocally or dramatically.
If you don’t want to listen to me, listen to my favourite and (too?1) much repeated quote from the great late Harnoncourt:
The audience isn’t here for a singing lesson, they’re here to see characters.
- I don’t believe it’s ever too often. This is what opera is all about. ↩