The libretto of Scipione
, by Paolo Rolli, is based on an episode in Livy’s account of the Roman conquest of Spain. The young general Publius Cornelius Scipio has taken the town of New Carthage (Cartagena) and is captivated by one of the female prisoners (called Berenice in the opera). He nobly refuses, however, to take the usual conqueror’s advantage over her; instead he accepts a ransom from her father and presents both her and the ransom to the Celtiberian prince to whom she is betrothed. (The story is sometimes called ‘The Continence of Scipio’.) Handel wrote the music in more than usual haste—it was a stop-gap production to compensate for a delay in the promised London debut of the soprano Faustina—and directed the first performance at the King’s Theatre on 12 March 1726. As the immediate successor to the great sequence of Giulio Cesare
it inevitably suffers by comparison, but contains several excellent numbers. The Overture is a perfectly good example of its kind, the reworking of movements from two of Handel’s recorder sonatas in the Allegro sections being skilfully accomplished. Act 1 of the opera opens with the famous March br, accompanying Scipio’s triumphal entry; it quickly became a favourite with military bands and remains so today. In Act 2 Berenice’s fiancé makes an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her and is put under arrest. Scipio offers himself as a more worthy suitor, but in the aria ‘Scoglio d’ immota fronte’ Berenice swears undying fidelity to her first love, comparing herself to a rock unmoved by tempestuous seas. Soaring vocal phrases over slowly changing harmonies represent the rock of Berenice’s faith, steadfast despite the turbulence released in the orchestra.
from notes by Anthony Hicks © 1996