enjoyed by ROBERT HUGILL
Handel's Partenope belongs to the group of his operas which are commonly regarded as comedies. There is no comic business as such; instead it takes a slightly satirical view of the conventions of opera seria. The heroine, Partenope, is Queen in her own right. So besides being the object of desire to the men surrounding her, she takes on the 'masculine' roles of leader in times of war. This role reversal is something which is at the heart of the piece. Of the men in love with her, one (Arsace) was played by a castrato, another (Armindo) was played by a woman and a third (Rosmira/Eurimene) was a female singer playing a woman who is dressed as a man for most of the opera and professes 'himself' in love with Partenope. Add to this the fact that the hero Arsace, the castrato naturally, is a coward and has dumped his previous love (Rosmira).
Handel wrote the opera after the collapse of the Royal Academy of Music. He seems to have had the source libretto for some time and we must presume that he was quite keen on the subject as it was proposed and rejected for the Royal Academy of Music. Handel's subsequent venture, in which he had more say in the repertoire, allowed him to be more adventurous and so he produced Partenope alongside the more conventional Lotario.
Partenope was written for a new group of singers that Handel had collected in Italy a year before. He had ended up with two women who specialised in singing male roles, Francesca Bertolli and Antonia Merighi. Merighi must have been a strong stage presence as Handel expanded one or two of his female contralto roles for her. In Partenope he played to her strengths by giving her the role of Rosmira who spends most of the opera dressed as a man, with Bertolli playing the male role of Armindo. The lead man was the castrato Bernacchi who played Arsace and Partenope was played by Anna Strada del Po, for whom Handel wrote Alcina.
For their new production at the London Coliseum (seen Saturday 18 October 2008), English National Opera chose as director Christopher Alden who has been responsible for some strong productions here. Alden often opts from challenging, non traditional stagings but can get to the heart of the piece.
For this production he and his designers Andrew Lieberman and Jon Morrell opted to set the opera in Paris in the 1920s. Partenope (Rosemary Joshua) became a Nancy Cunard look-alike whose house was a salon full of adoring young men. At first this seemed quite reasonable. Arsace (Christine Rice) and Armindo (Iestyn Davies) were both in love with her. Ormonte (James Gower), transformed from Captain of Partenope's guards into a friend come major domo, seemed to be in love with her as well. When Eurimene/Rosmira (Patricia Bardon) appeared, the benefit of having be-suited men was apparent in that both Bardon and Rice looked very convincing.
Lieberman's set for this act was stunning, an all white room with a feature staircase, exactly what you would expect for the milieu. Cracks in the dramaturgical structure appeared with the appearance of Emilio (John Mark Ainsley), the Prince of a neighbouring country who made war on Partenope because he was in love with her and wished to capture her. Alden had opted to make Emilio a photographer based on Man Ray. In the programme book they made connections with the surrealists and talk about Emilio making an attack on Rosmira's group by exposing their inner selves via the camera. This worked, just about, in Act 1, partly thanks to some superb singing.
But Act 2 is supposed to open with a depiction of Emilio's attack on Partenope's city. Instead we were back in the more mundane area of the apartment, with corridors and a toilet. Emilio put on a cinematic film and proceeded to try and rape Partenope. In fact Alden managed to confuse the action by having Ainsley's Emilio make passes at most of the men as well; only Ormonte responded, but this wasn't followed through. Then he had Joshua sing her big scene 2 aria as a sort of cabaret scene a la Dietrich (complete with top hat). The original plot called for Emilio to be locked up so Ainsley was locked in the toilet and had to sing an aria half hanging out of the sky-light above the door.
Alden never quite recovered his poise in this act. The various comings and goings were confused by us seeing Ainsley busy developing photographs towards the side of the stage.
Act 3 was the morning after and here Alden returned to form as he displayed the various characters coming to terms with their actions. Except that Arsace and Eurimene were supposed to be fighting a duel and you were never sure whether Alden (and hence the characters) took this seriously. When Gower came out with the swords he was dressed ludicrously. Yet unless the duel is real, the threat which forces Arsace and Eurimene/Rosmira's actions is radically neutered. Add to this the staging of Arsace's aria after Partenope has admitted that she loves him; Iestyn Davies had to sing this whilst performing a great deal of business with a comic top hat.
Perhaps the aspect of the staging that I found most disturbing was the constant flow of stage business. Alden seemed to have felt the need to provide the audience with a constant flow of incident and amusement. It wasn't so much that he gave each of the arias an amusing commentary, as that he staged the worked like a play, perhaps a Noel Coward play or a farce. So that incident was constant almost throughout the staging, there were few moments of repose. It was almost as if Alden did not quite trust Handel to cope on his own.
Ultimately the production worked because of the outstanding performances from all the cast members. This was that rare thing, a Handel opera seria without a weak link. And whilst I might have disliked aspects of the production there is no gainsaying the fact that Christopher Alden managed to get strong performances from the entire cast. These singers were not performing musically in a vacuum but turned in a strong integrated ensemble.
Rosemary Joshua added another temptress to her list with her incarnation of Partenope. Though Handel's contemporaries may have disapproved of the strength of character she shows, this does make her a very modern woman. And Handel seems to have sympathised, though he creates a believably sexy being, she is far stronger than Handel's other sex-pot roles. And Joshua made the most of this creating a believable woman who loved having a string of men dangling after her. Oh, and she also provided some incredible Handel singing.
Arsace was written for a castrato and is often sung by a counter-tenor. The drawback with this casting option is that it is easy for Arsace to come over as effete, effeteness seems to fall naturally to many counter-tenors. Whereas Christine Rice was anything but effete; she was by turns confused, weak, wilful and not always very nice, the complete antithesis to the hero; which was just what Handel wanted. Rice's masculine persona was a tour de force without ever being overdone. And in her Act 3 she gave us some truly intense singing, a fine combination of dramatic awareness and good Handelian sensibility.
Having Christine Rice in the cast was good, but having her and Patricia Bardon was simply amazing. Handel's portrayal of Rosmira is a gift for any singer and Bardon really wrung the heart strings with her wounded bravura.
Iestyn Davies made Armindo touching and not a little forlorn. He made the perfect foil to the strong characters of Rice and Bardon, but held his own; the little man gained in the end. Davies has a sympathetic counter-tenor voice which lends itself to the pathetic, but with a strength which prevented Armindo becoming too effete or too camp.
Emilio has slightly less to do, and in Handel's original he is very much the action man who, after being captured, really only comments on the action of others. John Mark Ainsley made him the eternal observer; he never fully involved himself with any particular person and wryly commented on events. Perhaps this is not quite Handel's Emilio but it worked very well. Though Ainsley has been singing bigger roles, he has preserved the beauty and flexibility of his voice. I wish we could hear him sing a larger Handel role; perhaps ENO might revive Jephtha for him.
James Gower, who is one of the ENO Young Singers, contributed a fine Ormonte. Ormonte is a character who is on-stage a lot but who gets the smallest number of arias; he's a bass and that's how the voice hierarchy worked in opera seria. Gower gave a strong performance with a highly creditable account of his arias.
Under conductor Christian Curnyn, making his ENO début, the ENO Orchestra played superbly. Here was a pit band giving such a fine period-aware performance that at times you almost forgot they were playing on modern instruments. If it hadn't been for the fact that Curnyn has already recorded the opera with his own forces I would be urging Chandos to capture the piece for their opera in English series.
Christopher Alden's take on Partenope was often a little annoying; I felt that the production never managed to follow on from the stunning visual and dramatic impact of Act 1. But there is no doubt that Alden and Curnyn managed to create a superbly musical and dramatic account of Handel's opera. Possibly one of the finest opera seria performances that I have heard in London for some time.
Copyright © 22 October 2008
Robert Hugill, London UK