Sometimes, just sometimes, a Baroque opera – even by a composer as great as Handel – is neglected for a reason. I was really looking forward to Berenice, presented as part of the London Handel Festival by La Nuova Musica, partly because this group is known for its high-quality interpretations and partly because, to the best of my knowledge, Berenice hasn’t been performed on these shores for about fifteen years. Sadly, the performance in St George’s Hanover Square didn’t come up to expectations.
For a variety of reasons I felt short-changed: the performance was billed as lasting three hours, but finished soon after 21.35. By cutting arias printed in the programme ‘on the hoof’ as it were, we lost at least twenty minutes of music on the night. Whilst we knew from the small print that there would be an interval, the programme didn’t say when the interval would fall nor how long it would be. Just as the various 18th century opera impresarios struggled to cover costs, I suspect it must be virtually impossible to break even when presenting an opera in St George’s Hanover Square. Baroque operas cost a lot to present with any semblance of authenticity. Generally there are six singers and the orchestras of the day were a decent size, so performing with a string quartet plus bass continuo and obbligato oboe turns an operatic drama into a sedate chamber cantata, making a nonsense of the variety of sonorities normally achieved by divisi strings, and losing any timbral differentiation between a solo violin as an obbligato instrument and a tutti string section. It put undue pressure on the sole first violin, Rodolfo Richter – although in my opinion he did sterling work – meaning some of the young singers must have felt very exposed.
Of the soloists we heard in St George’s, full marks should be awarded to Charlotte Beament for acting her socks off as Berenice and singing her role with accuracy and verve. The two notable highlights of the evening were “Chi t’intende” with oboe obbligato and her final duet with Alessandro “Quel bel labbro.” I would not have characterised Miss Beament as a typical Baroque singer. Sometimes she sounded a little awkward in the ornamentation, but so would anyone performing in an essentially unfamiliar genre. I believe opera seria is in the blood of the finest baroque singers of today and that their ornamentation is created organically.
As a countertenor, Michael Czerniawski is a Baroque specialist as a matter of course. I very much like the clarity and focused sound of this Polish singer. He sang all his arias with efficiency and a degree of elegance. His performance didn’t exactly catch fire, but I would attribute that to the rather dull music and the overall muted performance. Tenor Christopher Turner rendered a perfectly confident, calm performance in the role of Fabio. His Italian diction is excellent, but even the well-known aria, “Vedi l’ape” didn’t offer the buzzing energy I wanted to hear. The tenor role normally injects a bit of excitement into the drama, but sadly there was very little excitement in this opera.
I was impressed by the warm, even sound of Emma Stannard’s mezzo, but again felt she was not naturally a Baroque singer. Tim Dickinson, another promising young singer, did manage to inject some energy into his performance, but didn’t have the richness in the bass register from a singer tackling a true bass role. I had reservations about Anat Edin (who has a treble rather than soprano voice) as Alessandro and Timothy Morgan, who seemed nervous and somewhat ill-prepared as Arsace.
It was interesting that Ms Edin sang much better in duet with Ms Beament, so perhaps Ms Edin also suffered from too little orchestral support or too little rehearsal time. When push comes to shove, dare we suggest this is the one opera by Handel which really doesn’t work as a drama without some substantial editing? I don’t mean more cuts because the plot is already so mangled it doesn’t make sense. Perhaps Berenice is ripe for a reverse pasticcio treatment, reinstating some key recitative and adding half a dozen of Handel’s finest arias.
This underpowered performance prompted me to dream of a London festival of early/Baroque/classical opera in a larger venue where presentation costs can be covered, properly supported by sponsors so that neither audience nor the composer risks being short-changed. We don’t need another orchestral concert hall at great cost: we need the perfect focal point for 18th century opera.