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Banti was born near Cremona at some point in the mid to late 1750s, the daughter of a street singer and mandolin player. She made her début at the Paris Opéra in 1776, singing between the acts of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, and in her early twenties she moved to London. There she met the dancer Zaccaria Banti, whom she married in Amsterdam in 1779. During the 1780s she enjoyed great success in Venice and Naples, and she also sang in Vienna, Turin, Milan, Warsaw and Madrid. In June 1792 she took part in the inauguration of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, and from 1794 to 1802 she was engaged as the leading soprano at the King’s Theatre in London.
The musical reminiscences of the splendidly named Lord Mount-Edgcumbe, who himself composed an opera in which Banti sang the title role, recalled how “the most exquisite taste enabled her to sing with more effect, more expression, and more apparent knowledge of her art, than many much better professors; her voice had not a fault in any part of its unusually extensive compass”, while on the only surviving copy of the hand-bill for Haydn’s benefit concert, an anonymous commentator wrote: “Banti has a clear, sweet, equable voice, her low & high notes equally good, her recitative admirably expressive.”
To judge from the range and demands of the music Haydn wrote for her in the Scena di Berenice Banti must indeed have been a most accomplished artist, and yet she seems to have had an off-night at the 4 May concert, for the composer wrote in his diary that “she sang very scanty”. Nevertheless, Haydn was delighted with the overall success of the concert: “The hall was filled with a distinguished audience. The whole society was extremely pleased, and so was I. I netted four thousand florins on this evening. This one can make only in England.” Three months later, after much procrastinating, Haydn reluctantly left London to return to Vienna.
The text is taken from Act 3, scene 9 of Metastasio’s Antigono, a libretto which had originally been set by Hasse in 1743 and subsequently by over thirty composers, including Jommelli (1746), Gluck (1756), Traetta (1764) and Paisiello (1785). Although betrothed to Antigono, Berenice is actually in love with his son, Demetrio. Torn between his feelings for Berenice and his filial duty, Demetrio can see no way out of his predicament, and has resolved to kill himself. In “Berenice, che fai?” the disconsolate heroine deliriously laments her fate and longs to die alongside her beloved.
Haydn’s setting of the scene ostensibly comprises two recitatives and two arias, but the effect is in practice far more organic and unified. From the outset the music is full of dramatic contrasts—from the string tremolo depicting Berenice’s icy shivers to the serene oboe and bassoon melody as she imagines the gods’ contentment at her lover’s death—and this recitative leads directly into the first aria, a tranquil yet impassioned largo in E major. A short linking recitative prefaces the final allegro, a fiery and virtuosic number which races headlong to its frenzied conclusion.
Haydn’s autograph manuscript of the Scena di Berenice contains several hand-written changes which were made at some point after 1797, probably for a concert which took place in Vienna’s Augarten on 22 September 1803. The most significant of these changes is that he cut the opening three bars, possibly because he feared that their soft dynamic might lack the impact to attract an outdoor audience’s immediate attention.
from notes by Ian Page © 2017
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