Iford Arts: Partenope

Handel: Partenope
Contraband, Christopher Bucknall
Iford Arts, 23 June 2018

Since 1995, Iford Arts have been promoting the summer opera season in the magnificent Peto Gardens of Iford Manor, just south of Bradford-upon-Avon. The manor was the home of the Edwardian architect and landscape designer Harold Peto from 1899 until his death in 1933. Peto created the Italianate gardens that clamber up the hillside above the classically-fronted mediaeval Iford Manor, with terraces littered with architectural bits and bobs, including a recreation of an Italianate cloister. The cloister is turned into an intimate opera venue, with the hillside gardens providing a spectacular setting for pre-opera picnics and mid-opera biscuits. Sadly, this year is the last year that Iford Manor will be hosting Iford Arts and Opera at Iford, and the search is on for a new venue for them to continue to build their impressive Young Arts and Education Outreach programmes and to continue providing high standard opera in the Bath hinterlands. This year they presented three operas, Candide, Madam Butterfly, and Handel’s Partenope, alongside other events.

IMG_20180623_192320770.jpg
Handel’s Partenope is an entertaining venture into cross-dressing, sexual and political intrigue, disguise, and, 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, humour and sexual goings-on. Partenope is Queen of Naples. She has three princely admirers: Arsace, Armindo, Eurimene (a newcomer), and later, Emilio, heading an invading army, bent on a marriage alliance or war. Soon after the opera opens, Partenope’s favourite, Arsace, notices the striking similarity between the curious ‘Armenian’ Prince Eurimene to his former lover, Rosmira, not realising that it is indeed her, but disguised as a man. As a man, Eurimene becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections whilst, as a woman and ultimately 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 any pervs in the audience, Eurimene gives in at this point and reveals herself as Rosmira. It was first performed in February 1730, in the King’s Theatre. Continue reading

Iford Arts: Jephtha

Iford Arts: Jephtha
Contraband, Christopher Bucknall
Iford Manor, 25 July 2017 

Jephtha was Handel’s last oratorio, composed in 1751 as his sight was failing to the extent that at one point in the autograph score he wrote “unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.” It is rather telling that note occurs at the chorus that concludes Act 2, How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees, All hid from mortal sight. Despite Handel’s personal difficulties at the time, and the frankly bizarre Biblical story upon which it is based, it is one of his finest oratorios, full of the most glorious music for six solo singers and chorus with a succession of attractive and dramatic arias linked by relatively short recitatives.

This Iford Arts production, in the delightfully intimate surroundings of the Italianate cloister at Iford Manor, was directed by Timothy Nelson, with Christopher Bucknall directing the 14 instrumentalists of JEPH17_198.jpgContraband. It was set in recent times in a fundamentalist (and militaristic) Christian community of cult-like weirdness, led by the controlling Zebel (Frederick Long), with behaviours frequently bordering on what might have been found in a lunatic asylum of Handel’s day. As it happened, on my drive down to Iford, I listened to a Radio 4 broadcast of an account of the 1993 siege of a fundamentalist sect at Waco in Texas. The comparisons were chilling. Continue reading