English National Opera
The Coliseum, 22 March 2017
Partenope is an entertaining, if over-long, venture into cross-dressing, disguise, sexual and political intrigue and, at least in the original 1730 production, some impressive special effects, including a battle that employed a stage army. The story is a slight, but attractive one, with scope for drama, betrayal, intrigue, humour and sexual goings on.
Partenope is the Queen and mythological founder of Naples, who legend believes was also one of the Sirens who attempted to lure Odysseus onto the rocks. She has three admirers: Arsace, Armindo and Emilio. As the opera opens, her favourite, Arsace, is surprised to see his former lover (Rosmira) turn up disguised as a man (Eurimene). As a man, Eurimene becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections whilst, as a women and only recognisable to Arsace, she proceeds to mock and goad Arsace to the extent that the Queen demands that they fight a duel. Arsace, wanting to reveal Eurimene’s true identity, demands that they should both fight topless. Unfortunately for the dirty old men in the audience, Eurimene gives in at this point and reveals herself as Rosmira.
This was the first revival of Christopher Alden’s 2008 production. It is set in 1920s Paris around the complex interconnected lives of surrealist artists and the exotically (and erotically) wealthy. Handel’s opera, and this production, have both been hailed by critics as masterpieces, but I have my doubts. One production problem is that Handel’s own characterisations are often hard enough to fathom out, but where an additional character layer is applied, things get complicated. The most obvious example was the depiction of Emilio as Man Ray. I guess I am not alone in knowing rather more about Man Ray’s life than Emilio’s, so it was not always easy to become absorbed into the character that Handel (as opposed to the director) was trying to portray. I am also not convinced that this is Handel’s finest musical or dramatic achievement. It has some fine moments, but much that seems superfluous. I wonder if Handel intended Partenope to be quite so much the comedy that Christopher Alden has created in this production. His attempts at comedy were amusing at the start, but rather grated by the third Act. Amanda Holden’s oh-so-witty and tortuously rhyming translations also quickly began to wear thin. Calling somebody a ‘little shit’ seemed rather too street to be either 1920s or Handelian, but she did mange to get a ‘Fuck!’ in, which I don’t recall from 2008. One of her lines that was perhaps apt was: “I do not understand what this is about – but something queer is happening – of that there is no doubt”.
The Art Deco stage set was an improvement on the 2008 set, which was an uncharacteristically Heath Robinson affair with visible fixing marks and construction shadows in what should have been a smooth plaster surface. The first Act takes place in a swish ocean-liner style saloon (including, at the start, some Lee Miller gas masks), the second in the murky corridor behind, including the battle scene which was reduced to a bit of a tussle. A sizeable chunk of the Act 2 action took place in and around and, indeed, on top of, a toilet, although only those sitting on the main axis of the auditorium would have been able to see much of this. The final Act was dominated by a massive and slowly revealled Man Ray photograph of Lee Miller, her initial sole nipple having to wait until the end before becoming the usual brace.
Production doubts aside, musically this was strong, with a fine cast of singers on good form. Sarah Tynan (pictured below) was an ideal choice as Partenope, both vocally and physically. Her erotically charged reincarnation as a Nancy Cunard figure was aided by her wearing an armful of bracelets similar to those in Man Ray’s photographs of Cunard. Patricia Bardon switched to Arsace from her 2008 role as the scorned Rosmira, disguised as Eurimene, here sung by Stephanie Windsor-Lewis in her ENO debut. Matthew Durkan camped up the role of Ormonte while channelling Lytton Strachey, and provided much of the comedy interest. Rupert Charlesworth (replacing the previously announced singer) excelled as Man Ray/Emilio. He wore the bizarre paper cut-out and goggle-glasses facial mask that Man Ray adorned André Breton with in his 1930s photograph, giving another layer of identity confusion as, in the original, it was Breton who wore the mask and Ray who took the photo. Countertenor James Lang was Armindo, at one point having to sing Voglio dire al mio tesoro upside down while hanging by his fingers from the edge of a staircase (photo by Donald Cooper).
Christian Curnyn made an excellent ENO debut in the 2008 production, having already performed and recorded Partenope with his own Early Opera Company. On this occasion he jollied the ENO band into a very convincing performance – their understanding of period performance has increased noticeably in recent years. Perhaps the pace was a little hectic for some of the singers, but it certainly kept things moving in an opera that lacks the big moments that usually punctuate the action.