Berenice dates from 1737, a disastrous year in Handel's life, that saw both the financial collapse of his opera company in Covent Garden and the impairment of his health after a stroke. Berenice itself was a failure, closing after only four performances in its opening run, and Handelians have argued about its merits ever since. You're conscious of occasional lapses in inspiration, certainly, but the score is also characterised by an unusual darkness of tone. Set in Ptolemaic Egypt, the opera deals with the relationship between sex and politics. At its centre is a quintessentially Handelian erotic tangle: Alessandro loves Queen Berenice, who loves Demetrio, who loves Berenice's sister Selene. But in the distance the decaying Roman republic threatens war if Berenice refuses its own choice of husband, and things go from bad to worse before there can be any resolution. The recording is wonderful, one of Alan Curtis's finest, and conducted with an acerbic elegance that hovers between sensuality and anger. Klara Ek's blazing, impetuous Berenice is worth every one of those five stars on its own, though there's also some fabulous singing from Ingela Bohlin (Alessandro), Romina Basso (Selene) and Franco Fagioli (Demetrio).
Tim Ashley is a Guardian classical and opera critic, though he's also keen on literature and philosophy so you might sometimes find him cross-referencing all three. His work has also appeared in Literary Review and Opera magazine and he is author of a biography of Richard Strauss