Scipione – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Paolo Antonio Rolli [sung in Italian]
Scipione – James Laing
Berenice – Mhairi Lawson
Lucejo – Catherine Carby
Lelio – Jorge Navarro Colorado
Ernando – Matthew Durkan
Armira – Jessica Cale
Early Opera Company
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 18 March, 2023
Venue: St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London
Handel wrote Scipione at the height of his success with his first opera company in London in 1726, after the three acclaimed masterpieces Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda. The piece has not re-established a place in the repertoire following the revival of interest in this composer’s operatic output in recent decades however, and has remained obscure, except for the brief March immediately after the Overture, to accompany Scipio Africanus’s triumphal entry into Carthage after his successful battle in the Second Punic War.
Despite the nominal background of that historic event and Scipio’s fame, and unlike those other great operas of Handel’s, the narrative of Scipione doesn’t inherently turn upon or depend for its dynamism and logic upon any great moment in history. The drama is an entirely domestic one that could really focus on any group of people in power, rather than on one of the greatest Roman generals specifically, and it lacks the complex twists and turns which at least add some tension and excitement to many opere serie, however absurd the plots may sometimes be.
This opera tells how Scipione falls in love with Berenice, one of the slaves taken as spoils of war, despite the fact that she is already promised in marriage to the Spanish prince Lucejo. Once her father, Ernando, offers a ransom for his captive daughter, and Scipione sees their steadfast devotion, he magnanimously relents and also accepts Lucejo’s loyal submission to Rome. As a subplot, his captain Lelio has his own amorous problems with Armira, who won’t return his affections while she remains a prisoner. Despite the possibilities for some light-hearted, or even comic contrast, none is provided. But the main narrative doesn’t draw from Handel an especially heroic style of musical setting – Scipione has curiously few arias for the title role, and his first full da capo aria only appears at the end of Act One (after two, simpler ariosos, thematically related, at the beginning).
James Laing made the most of the long seamless lines often given to the role, with his pristine tone and control gently persuasive instead of vociferous and overbearing as the leader, in the absence of much virtuosic writing. Rather it is Berenice who has the most extrovert music, nobly and brightly executed by Mhairi Lawson, but even her bravura aria ‘Scoglio d’immota fronte’, ending Act Two, has comparatively restrained flights of coloratura by Handel. Lawson asserted an imperious order over it, becoming fierier for the da capo and a brief concluding cadenza. In her deeper register, Catherine Carby offered an engagingly varied performance as Lucejo, urgent and anxious at one moment on witnessing Berenice’s apparent betrayal of his love in favour of Scipione, resigned or contented the next.
Jessica Cale brought more capricious allure as Armira, her lively vibrato instilling ‘Libera chi non e i lacci’ with a certain sassy confidence, and a cheerfulness to ‘Voglio cententa allor’ that revealed a twinkle in the voice as well as in the eye as she teased Lelio. He was taken with lyrical ardour by Jorge Navarro Colorado, generously projecting this tenor part with an appealingly open, airy timbre. Matthew Durkan provided musical gravitas in the solid evenness of his singing in the bass role of Ernando.
Christian Curnyn’s interpretation kept the sequence of arias within a moderate range of expression and Affekt, rather than exploring vivid contrasts. Tempos were generally comfortable – neither too fast nor slow – with lilting lines where necessary. But more vigour and energy in some arias might have made a better case for what otherwise feels like only a very average Handel opera. Nevertheless, it was a treat to hear this rarely encountered opera (Christophe Rousset’s 1993 recording is still the only one) in a committed reading.