Handel composed Berenice
in December 1736 and January 1737, and directed its first performance on 16 May 1737. It was Handel’s last production at Covent Garden before he returned to the King’s Theatre the following autumn. The libretto was an old one by Antonio Salvi (Berenice, regina d’Egitto
), dating back to 1709. The title role can be identified with the Graeco-Egyptian queen Cleopatra Berenice, daughter of Ptolemy Lathyrus (Ptolemy IX Soter II), who ruled briefly after the death of her father in 81bc. Berenice and her sister are both in love with the same prince, Demetrio, and Berenice angrily rejects an order from the Roman dictator Sulla (conveyed by the Roman ambassador Fabio) that she should marry her cousin Alessandro. However, she is eventually convinced of the sincerity of Alessandro’s love for her, and she tells Fabio she will accept Rome’s choice. After making her decision she reflects on the capriciousness of the goddess Fortune (traditionally portrayed as a blind old woman) in an aria which is virtually a duet for soprano and solo oboe. Voice and instrument are often left unaccompanied as they illustrate the fickleness of fortune by playing with several different fragments of melody.
from notes by Anthony Hicks © 2000