By no stretch of the imagination could Partenope be considered a Handel masterpiece. It was dashed off in less than a month, on a hijacked libretto, and boasts one of the most ridiculous plot lines in history. And yet Christopher Alden’s new production at ENO is so spectacularly sung that this off-the-cuff creation becomes something rather special, something far more than it really deserves.
Alden relocates the quasi-classical narrative from Naples to Paris during Les Annes Folles, with Partenope conceived as a Lee Miller-esque muse, who flutters and flirts amidst her Surrealist circle. Ormonte could be Breton, one of the others Picasso, perhaps, and the sinister photographer Emilio is unmistakable as Man Ray: a number of visual jokes gas-masks and a bill-board nude are direct quotations of his work. Within this milieu of creative, uptight individuals, Handel’s gender-bending, free-love farce is allowed to flourish.
The story is really too silly to concern us, suffice to say that it focuses on those old-time favourites, mistaken identity and the conflicts of love, with battle as an extended metaphor. It was intended to parody the affected conventions of opera seria, and the beauty of Alden’s production is that he translates this theme into something modern audiences can enjoy: a scoff at the pretensions of modern artists. There is wit, a lightness of touch, and plenty of ‘surreal’ madness, but the staging is refreshingly free from editorial comment.
Puffed and bellicose incidental music provides an opportunity for the baroque trumpeters to shine and pourquoi pas? some impromptu Charleston moves on stage. However, while the score is pleasant enough, the modern ear can’t help but hear the majority of arias as ragged rehashes or hints at future hits. In the wrong hands the da capo longueurs could become unbearable but they are flattered by a superb triumvirate of singers exhibiting the best of British talent.
Rosemary Joshua is on fighting form in the title role. Though brittle and cool in character she unleashes volleys of vocal fireworks: fiendish decorative runs are negotiated with ease and she is clean and bright in the top register. Patricia Bardon sings an excellent Rosmira, her voice rich and assured, but it is Christine Rice’s Arsace who makes the greatest impression. Not only does Rice make an utterly convincing man but her celebrated mezzo sounds exquisite, and in ornamental passages she mixes tonal assurance with thrilling risk-taking. Iestyn Davies provides notable support Armindo’s an unbearable drip but in the hands of Davies’ honeyed counter-tenor he becomes a smooth-talker.
Andrew Lieberman’s sets, which show the interior and exterior of Partenope’s modernist house, provide a blank canvas for Jon Morrell’s colourful costumes: bright velvet suits, and tails in feminine cuts inspired no doubt by Coco and Colette. In the pit, Christian Curnyn conducts a performance that is sprightly and robust but lingering where necessary. With such a fine collaboration of forces this uneven opera shines.