Once again Alan Curtis and EMI/Virgin Classics give us an excellent recording of a little-known Handel opera. (The one previous recording of Berenice is called merely "satisfactory" by its sole Amazon reviewer.)
Now professor emeritus of musicology at Berkeley, Curtis helped kick off the Handel renaissance with his complete recording of Admeto for EMI in 1977. That recording, which is still available on Virgin CD , starred Rene Jacobs, James Bowman, Max van Egmond, and other pioneers in historically informed performance. The band was Il Complesso Barocco, then comprised primarily of Dutch musicians.
Curtis didn't record any more Handel operas for many years afterwards, but recently he has more than made up for lost time. From his European base, Curtis has reconstituted Il Complesso Barocco as a largely Italian ensemble (although cellist Richte van der Meer plays in both Admeto and Berenice). Since 1999, they have produced CDs of Alcina, Arminio, Deidamia, Ezio, Fernando, Floridante, Lotario, Radamisto, Rodelinda, Rodrigo, and Tolomeo and a fine DVD of Arioidante Handel - Ariodante / Hallenberg, Cherici, Vandoni Iorio, Nesi, Lepore, Stains, Prato, Il Compresso Brocco, Curtis, Pascoe (Spoleto Festival 2007). Many of these are first recordings, and several have won awards. (A box containing six of these operas is currently available from ArkivMusik, although it is not listed at Amazon.)
The plot of Berenice, based on a libretto by Antonio Salvi, is typically convoluted. "The characters gyrate around the central theme of politically expedient marriage in a bewildering series of twists and turns, hoodwinkings, prevarications and plain falsehoods, creating, by Act II, an almost buffo-like imbroglio," writes David Kimbell in the Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia. Nonetheless, as Kimbell says, the opera is "packed with fine arias," of which the most famous are Demetrio's "Si, tra i ceppi" and Berenice's "Avvertite, mie pupille." The three duets are especially appealing.
Although this is apparently Klara Ek's recording premiere, her performance has received widespread praise. Andrew Clark in the Financial Times writes, "No one with an interest in Handel operas will be disappointed by the performance or by a cast led by the bright-voiced Klara Ek in the soprano title role and two excellent mezzos, Romina Basso and Mary Ellen Nesi." Nesi has previously been a stand-out as Polinesso in Curtis's DVD of Ariodante and as Teseo in Petrou's CD of Arianna in Creta. Soprano Ingela Bohlin portrayed the captive Princess Iole in Christie's superb DVD of Hercules Handel - Hercules / Shimell, DiDonato, Spence, Bohlin, Ernman, Kirkbride, Les Arts Florissants, Christie, Luc Bondy (Opera de Paris 2005).
Curtis's Berenice marks a milestone. Every surviving Handel opera has now had at least one high-quality recording--although, unfortunately, not every one remains in print.