Handel’s Scipione: the Early Opera Company close the London Handel Festival with a celebration of clemency

This year’s London Handel Festival was brought to a gracious close with a celebration of clemency, magnanimity and honour.  Scipione, the ninth of the operas that Handel composed for the Royal Academy of Music, was first performed at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in March 1726.  The previous year had seen Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda impress London audiences; but, if Scipione isn’t quite equal to those masterpieces, then in this concert performance at St George’s Hanover Square, Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company made a convincing case for its musical merits and expressive impact.

One reason that Scipione has not enjoyed the high regard of its precursors is probably the weaknesses of structure and characterisation which mar Paolo Antonio Rolli’s libretto.  But, the hastily composed opera also underwent extensive revisions to both text and score in the run-up to the performance, necessitated by the indisposition of one singer (the contralto Anna Dotti) and the ineptitude of another (the soprano Livia Nannini Costantini, newly arrived at the company as a stop-gap before Faustini’s arrival) which resulted in roles and arias being cut and re-dispersed.  (Handel made further alterations when the opera received its only revival, in 1730; the EOC presented the 1726 score.)

Set in 210 BCE, Scipione presents a fictitious account of the conquering Roman, Scipio Africanus, who has just captured New Carthage from the Carthaginians and their Spanish allies.  He falls in love with the most beautiful of his hostages, Berenice; his general, Lelio is similarly enamoured of the imprisoned Armira.  Berenice is betrothed to a Spanish prince, Lucejo, but when he disguises himself as a Roman soldier and enters the palace garden in which she is confined, she denies him and denounces him as a madman, in order to prevent him revealing his identity, triggering his jealousy, anger and despair. 

After subterfuge and stratagem have failed to unravel the love knots, Berenice’s father Ernando, King of the Balearic Islands, arrives and offers Scipione friendship and a ransom for his daughter.  Tendered Berenice’s liberty in return for her hand in marriage, Ernando declares that he cannot break his promise to Lucejo.  This prompts some self-interrogation from Scipione who has a change of heart – in a single line of recitative – proclaims victory over his own emotions and bestows Berenice on Lucejo (Ernando’s ransom is his wedding gift).  After some inconsequential business, all acclaim Scipione’s magnanimity and Lucejo pledges allegiance to Rome. 

The role of Berenice was created by Francesca Cuzzoni, Handel’s first Rodelinda and Cleopatra.  Here, Mhairi Lawson impressed with some stunningly expressive vocalism, particularly in the accompanied recitatives.  Her purity of tone and consistency of line brought tremendous dignity and profundity to the siciliano at the end of Act 2 in which Berenice laments the never-ending trials she must forbear; elsewhere Lawson conveyed a gamut of emotions, from bewilderment to self-pity and, in a showstopping outburst of exuberant coloratura fireworks – with super support from vigorous strings and sumptuous oboes and bassoons – feisty resolution.

The mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby took the ‘Senesino role’ of Lucejo, singing with lyrical intensity and a surprisingly ‘masculine’ meatiness at times, tonally rich across the registers, and with a lovely glossiness at the top.  Carby captured the impetuous temperament of the proud Spanish prince whose emotions frequently get the better of him.  Lucejo’s Act 1 jealousy aria revealed not only the fierceness of his anguish but also his inner conflicts, while his second Act 2 aria was a musical and dramatic highpoint in which the contrasting strains potently communicated his fluctuating feelings and intentions.

The role of Scipione is rather lacking in psychological detail or depth but the countertenor James Laing brought dignity and presence to the part, particularly in the long accompanied recitative in which Scipione struggles with his conscience and resolves to sacrifice his own feelings for the sake of others.  Lelio’s characterisation is inconsistent – his love for Armida puts him on the side of the ladies though he tries, somewhat feebly, to uphold his loyalty to Scipione – but he has one lovely, slow aria in Act 3 which the tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado sang with beautiful line and phrasing, relishing the expressive sequences and modulations. 

Jessica Cale, who was Joint Audience Prize winner at the 2020 LHF International Singing Competition, was considerably more accomplished than Costantini, her fresh, clean soprano employed with skill and expressiveness to convey Armira’s pride and integrity.  As Ernando, the baritone Matthew Durkan matched the leaping strings for agility in his first aria and delivered the moral core of the opera in Act 3 with earnest conviction. 

Curnyn opened the opera in bracing fashion, the multi-movement overture comprising a range of styles and moods, and closing with a noble march – representing the grand procession of Scipione, in a chariot at the head of his army, passing through a triumphal arch – in which the natural horns packed a real punch.  Elsewhere the instrumental playing was characterised by sonorous woodwind, buoyant strings, beautifully shaped bass lines and expressive theorbo colours and curls. Tempi were fluent – not too rushed, with room for the music to breathe.

Scipione might not be one of Handel’s masterpieces, but it contains many gems and they were made to sparkle by the Early Opera Company.

Claire Seymour

Berenice – Mhairi Lawson, Lucejo – Catherine Carby, Scipione – James Laing, Lelio – Jorge Navarro Colorado, Armira – Jessica Cale, Ernando – Matthew Durkan; Conductor – Christian Curnyn, Early Opera Company

St George’s, Hanover Square, London; Saturday 18th March 2023.

ABOVE: Nicolas Poussin’s ‘The Continence of Scipio’ (1640)