Berenice: Handel’s other Egyptian queen

Actually, make that Handel’s other other Egyptian queen, because while Cleo is definitely No. 1, I think sort-of queen Seleuce in Tolomeo is more popular than Berenice. Alan Curtis recorded this obscure lady in 2010 on Virgin Classics, and brought his Il complesso barocco and most of the same singers to the Theater an der Wien for a concert performance last night. It’s not quite top-drawer Handel, but there’s still plenty to enjoy, particularly with a performance this good.

My Week of Living 18th Century continues.

Handel, Berenice. Concert performance in the Theater an der Wien, 1/27/2011. Il complesso barocco conducted by Alan Curtis with Klara Ek (Berenice), Ingela Bohlin (Alessandro), Milena Storti (Selene), Franco Fabioli (Demetrio), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Arsace), Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Fabio), Johannes Weisser (Aristobolo)

I didn’t do my homework and picked up a last-minute ticket 15 minutes before the show, sliding into my seat with only a few minutes to spare. Meaning, no time to read the plot summary. I think this may be the first time I have not even attempted to follow the plot of an opera, but to be honest it seemed complicated and not that compelling, so I just decided it was going to be Aria Night. With concert Handel, that works. And while none of the singers quite reached the lofty heights of Karina Gauvin and Iestyn Davies in last October’s Curtis Tolomeo, also at the Theater an der Wien (didn’t blog about it, sorry), they were first-rate.

Berenice dates from 1737, prime time for Handel creatively speaking (though personally not such a great year for him, with financial and health problems), but it was a flop and only ran for four performances. It’s quality stuff, but has an unusual number of smaller arias (also an unusual number of very nice duets). There are some pleasant and unusual numbers, but not many show-stoppers, and the seven roles of close to equal importance mean that star opportunities are sparse. The title character is indeed the lead, but it’s not the most thankful of Handel diva roles. She seems to be a “Da tempeste” and an “Ah! mio cor” short. However, Swedish soprano Klara Ek made the most of what there was, singing with technical accomplishment and bright, brilliant, sometimes hard-edged tone. Her biggest aria, “Chi’ t’intende” is certainly unusual in form, with many tempo changes and a complex oboe obligato part (wonderfully played by Vinciane Baudhuin), but it’s still not “Scherza infida” in psychological depth. Ek also brought a vivid characterization of a proud queen, and her animated facial expressions and occasionally extravagant gestures show her potential to develop into a Cult Early Music Diva. Kermes of the Future?

Fellow Swedish soprano Ingela Bohlin was an excellent contrast as Alessandro. She has a very light and girly voice for a castrato role, but her warm, liquid, sweet singing was some of the prettiest of the evening. What is it with the preponderance of fantastic Swedish early music singers? (I am also including Ann Hallenberg from Sunday’s Ariosti extravaganza, and Anne Sofie von Otter from the Rameau of last week.) I already wanted to move to Sweden, but now I want to even more.

Countertenor Franco Fagioli doesn’t have a very even or rich voice, sometimes sounding thin, but makes up for it with extraordinary range and agility. His “Guerra e pace, Egizia terra” was the showpiece of the evening. As Fabio, magnificiently named tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani was accurate and pleasant, and the only snappy dresser in a somewhat disheveled cast. Mary-Ellen Nesi showed a powerful and beautiful low mezzo as Arsace, and Johannes Weisser, a holdover from last Sunday’s Ariosti, again sounded unfocused, though he acted well.

Mezzo Milena Storti was a very late replacement for the ill Romina Bassi in the role of Selene, and according to the preshow announcement received the score at three in the morning that day, learning it overnight. She has a round, dark voice and sang with impressive confidence, including great use of the text in recits and some playful moments in the arias, and was deservedly warmly received by the audience.

The baddest mustache in Baroque conducting, Alan Curtis, and his orchestra Il complesso barocco were the real highlight of the evening. They know this style inside and out, and play with easy, unexaggerated grace and energy, and perfect balance and textual transparency. I’ve never understood those who find Handel boring, but with playing with this kind of nuance and variety in character, well, I understand less.

Here’s this group’s CD of this opera again. If you’re in the market for any Handel opera recordings, I highly recommend Curtis’s recordings as a general policy for their excellent musicianship, stylistic accuracy, and animated drama.

Also, about that student Gluck performance of the other night, Il Parnaso confuso, at Schloss Schönbrunn: I went, I didn’t like, and I have no desire to beat up students, so that’s it. Except I wish to note that electronic composition and Gluck really don’t mix that well, in my opinion.

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