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 Recording of the Week  Handel's Berenice

This week sees the release of the latest volume in Alan Curtis’s extensive exploration of Handel’s operas. Having already recorded six for Virgin (Admeto, Arminio, Deidamia, Radamisto, Rodrigo and Fernando) and five for DG (Rodelinda, Floridante, Tolomeo, Ezio and Alcina), Curtis has done more than most to promote this wonderful music to the widest possible audience. And judging by the number of pre-orders we have had for this title, he has also built up a significant number of followers.

Alan Curtis
Alan Curtis

Written in 1737, Berenice was one of Handel’s later operas. It was a difficult year for the composer both professionally and personally. Handel had lived in England since 1712, and since then had spent a considerable amount of his time, money and energy managing opera companies. In 1737 he was in the middle of his third company (this time at Covent Garden Theatre), but had a major rival in the form of the ‘Opera of the Nobility’ run by Italian composer Porpora and featuring star castrato Farinelli. In the end the Opera of the Nobility collapsed but not before it had caused Handel considerable financial and emotional strain. To make matters worse Handel also suffered a stroke which left his right arm temporarily paralysed. Disabled from playing the harpsichord and organ it was feared that he might never play again, but in the end made a remarkable quick recovery.

Against this backdrop Berenice received its first performance on 18th May. It lasted only four performances, which was the fewest number for a first run of any of Handel’s operas. He never revived it, and re-used only a few pieces in his later works. Despite that rather unpromising beginning, listening to this new recording today it displays all the craft, imagination and musical quality associated with his more famous operas.

There is a huge amount to enjoy here with lots of lovely music full of fascinating musical and dramatic ideas. The performance is very good with Swedish soprano Klara Ek full of dramatic power in the title role, while Italian countertenor Franco Fagioli’s Demetrio is sincere, sustained and very musical. In fact all the soloists sing well and are superbly supported by Alan Curtis and his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco.

As usual there are a couple of samples below to give you an idea. I spent ages trying to decide what bits to give you as there are lots of fantastic bits, but in the end have opted for Fabio’s aria ‘Vedi l’ape’ as it is well sung and displays Handel’s hugely imaginative orchestration brilliantly - the triplet violin passage portraying a bee flying from flower to flower; and the duet which concludes Act I ‘Se il mio amor’, which is essentially a love duet and is full of lovely imitation and is typical of the general very high quality of music and performance throughout this set. Enjoy!

Handel: Berenice, regina d'Egitto, HWV 38

Klara Ek (soprano), Ingela Bohlin (soprano), Franco Fagioli (countertenor), Romina Basso (mezzo-soprano), Mary Ellen Nesi (mezzo-soprano), Vito Priante (bass) & Zorzi Giustiniani (tenor), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC