“Partenope” could almost be called a chamber opera, and in purely visual terms one might have been looking at a production of Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio” – but more of that later. It’s singing that counts in this music – and this was an evening of exceptional Handelian style. Rosemary Joshua’s Partenope was a worthy successor to her Semele, ‘L’Amor ed il Destin’ typical of her confident delivery, silvery tone and mastery of phrasing. In Act Two, ‘Qual Farfalletta’ was perhaps a little subdued, but ‘Quel volto mi piace’ was incisively characterised. It helped that she was not only beautifully costumed but given graceful and appropriate things to do whilst singing, neither of which advantages were given to the Emilio of John Mark Ainsley, who must surely now win the award for ‘Singer Who Has Survived the Most Stupid Stage Business Whilst Singing Impossibly Florid Music’. Ainsley sang his first aria whilst placing bodies and photographing them, his third up a ladder wearing a skirt and a turban, but ‘Barbaro Fato sì’ topped them all, standing on a toilet, leaning halfway out of a transom window and smoking. All taken in his stride, of course, the rapid coloratura delivered with firm steady tone and immaculate diction.
Iestyn Davies’s Armindo also had to do battle with stage business and achieved a similar triumph – this is not an easy character to convey, given that he spends most of the opera in a state somewhere between tremulous expectation and despair, but still gets the girl in the end – Davies was completely convincing, and his singing was consistently lovely in tone and elegant in phrasing, his Act One aria a high point of the evening. Christine Rice, in the Senesino role of Arsace, was exceptionally persuasive as a young man, singing with elegance and style and a cultivated insouciance entirely appropriate to the production – both ‘O Eurimene’ in Act One and ‘Non chiedo, oh miei tormenti’ in Act Three were finely done. Patricia Bardon was, perhaps appropriately, less convincing in her travesti role of Eurimene / Rosmira, but her singing was eloquent and touching in every way. James Gower, a member of the ENO Young Singer programme, completed the strong cast with his confident Ormonte.
I found Christian Curnyn’s conducting here much livelier and more engaging than on his Chandos recording (also with Rosemary Joshua) – tempos were generally faster, but not to the extent that they impeded the singers, and there was a greater sense of dramatic impetus. David Newby’s cello continuo and David Miller’s theorbo provided delicately nuanced accompaniment to the recitatives, particularly noticeable in Arsace’s wonderful ‘sleep’ aria in Act Three.
Alden and his co-director Peter Littlefield, together with the set designer Andrew Lieberman, took their inspiration from Surrealist writers and artists, setting Partenope’s court in a pared-down, blond-and white version of Man Ray’s studio: the character of Emilio is presented as the photographer, arranging images just as he arranges the lives of the other protagonists, and the heroine is an emotionally well balanced version of Zelda Fitzgerald – you could just see this lady using a belt to ensure that the lift stayed on their floor.
Does it work? Yes, it does – the world of the early eighteenth-century is not that far distant from that of the early twentieth in terms of its surface gloss and its emergent questioning of the relationship between Reason and Emotion, between the urbane and the spontaneous, and the concept is wonderfully coherent despite the demands made upon some of the singer / actors within it. It’s also very funny in parts, and although I did not always warm to Amanda Holden’s chirpy translation (“Crikey!” “O shit!”), it certainly engaged most of the audience.
It was good to see a packed Coliseum for this first night, and for lovers of Baroque music it’s a joy to know that the house up the road has also been presenting a rarely heard masterpiece of the period (“La Calisto”) in an equally remarkable production. “Partenope” has seven further performances – most highly recommended for the finest Handel singing you’re likely to hear anywhere, and a production of exceptional style.
- Further performances on October 16, 18, 24 & 31 and November 2 (at 3 p.m.) 7 and 12
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- English National Opera