Whimsical Partenope returns to kick off the Handel season (ENO, 17 March 2017)

You know what we/I haven’t had in a while? (A bit of semi-obscure) Handel! Since Gauvin’s recital at the end of January, to be precise. ENO has programmed their revival of the Award Winning 2008 production of Partenope to coincide with the usual time of the year when we celebrate the Grandmaster of the Baroque Formula.

I bought this ticket the day before the show, just before leaving for the Radvanovsky recital. Because 1) I bungled it when the tickets went on sale, 2) there was no way for me to attend this week’s performances no matter how I tried to cut it (and these days the situation at work is the sort where one should try to cut it as little as possible) and last but most importantly 3) this is a badass production, which kept niggling at the back of my mind (you’re not going to see that? Seriously? You’re not? And you call yourself an admirer of clever stylish silly ideas? It’s Handel, ffs! A Handel comedy!).

Oh, who am I kidding?! It all comes down to:

Like Radvanovsky was saying: I just like I was lucky to have quite a grand introduction to it, on my very first outing at Wigmore Hall. You should see my badass moves 😉 If I were a singer with a half decent coloratura this would be one of my audition/recital staples. By the end of it the audience would be bawling on each other’s shoulders. Or perhaps chuckling. But moved they would be. After about 30min on repeat (various versions) my musically inclined cat joined in with the coloratura 😀 that’s how much we love this aria at casa dehggi.

Partenope: Sarah Tynan
Emilio: Rupert Charlesworth (taking the entire season over from Robert Murray (indisposed))
Arsace: Patricia Bardon
Armindo: James Laing
Rosmira “Eurimene”: Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
Ormonte: Matthew Durkhan
Conductor: Christian Curnyn | Orchestra of the ENO
Director: Christopher Alden
Set designer: Andrew Lieberman
Costume designer: Jon Morell

In this production, the laddish Arsace, who sings the aria after being roasted by his jilted lover, brandishes about a bottle of something stiff but somehow does not smash it by the end. Dude! I’d like several (the entire stash) to smash to the coloratura.

“But what if Man Ray isn’t what turns you on? If your fancy isn’t taken by the erotic charge of a strategically positioned black triangle, or a prominent nipple in an expanse of flesh smoothed flat by the lens and viewpoint, or if the sight of a 1920s siren smoking through a long cigarette holder fails to excite? In that case, this production has little for you.” (Davin Karlin for Bachtrack on this revival of ENO/Opera Australia’s 2008 production of Partenope).

That’s the case with every production built on a schtick. Luckily, I get down with all of that, especially the siren bit, which Tynan rocks (is there anything more stylish than 1920s fashions? Nah.) It’s a sort of “flat” production, in the sense it’s all about posing rather than following a plot logically1 but then we’re talking Surrealist photography, Bauhaus and whatnot. Visual arts during Modernism made a point out of removing (or at least disrupting) the narrative.

How does this relate to Handel? Singers do silly things whilst singing but we’re reminded that singers in Handel’s time used to make the most of their limelight moments as well and the public was often engaged otherwise. People do silly things at moments of heightened emotion – and sometimes at regular times, too. Sometimes overthinking gets in the way of good fun.

Partenope the character is flirty but constant. She likes to be admired and friendzones men by the boatload. Arsace (her lover at the beginning of the opera) isn’t particularly flirty but as soon as “Eurimene” shows up he suddenly knows remembers he’s actually Rosmira, his hitherto fogotten ex. It’s a bit Alcina without the magic – or “for adults”. Case in point: we have the bonus of a mezzo making out with both the title soprano and another mezzo.

In the end Partenope rebounds with the shy guy and Rosmira gets her pretty man back after a satisfying bout of emotional torture (no hard feelings from Partenope, who is reasonable/together enough to know it’s all Arsace’s fault). Emilio – the enemy, who, in a short duet suavely sings he’d like to make Partenope his chattel – is added to the friendzone menagerie. So far so contemporary feminist.

The singing was constantly fine across the board though I can’t say it ever rose to stratospheric levels of emotion. Bardon has a very recognisable dark mezzo and here somehow outcountertenored Laing. She also showed what a bitch of an aria Furibondo… is. I remember someone on youtube commenting on a live recording of Scholl singing it how he for once prefers Daniels. Not fair comparing live to studio!

The reason why I love it is because Handel packs so much. You start on coloratura, then you have to vary projection, sometimes mid-phrase (= shouts of agitation), more coloratura, then you get to the B section, where I gather you add rubato to taste (I really liked what Horne did there on an almost melancholic agitata and the contrast with the very dark dol), because the rhythm is pretty much the same throughout – relentless and staccato.

Back to Bardon’s: it was good but not fabulous. I suppose there are many factors that go into this. People have criticised Curnyn’s approach as too fast in general, not giving singers breathers. I remember thinking during one of the slow Arsace arias that it could’ve been a tad faster. He did manage some very pretty interventions from the winds and assorted brass during Eurimene’s warlike aria2. Also the rhythm section deserves praise for keeping it tight throughout. It made me grin, thinking, ah, there’s nothing (in classical music) quite like Baroque to rock a solid rhythm.

But yes, perhaps Furibondo… was too fast. There were times (the shouty moments) when Bardon didn’t project as strongly as I would’ve expected – for whatever reason. I thought the role suited her otherwise, even though, like I said, I don’t remember her sounding quite so countertenorish before. Special mention: really nice job from Bardon on the movement-whilst-singing-a-male-character department.

photo from The Stage (click for review)

Tynan has the right voice and style for the role. All is needed is a bit of extra something to make it outstanding. Her interaction with her suitors and her Partenope persona were on the money throughout. I must commend the Personnenregie in general, very convincing in its details.

But in spite of the mezzo-soprano-mezzo estravaganza, Charlesworth’s Emilio stole the show this time. He took proper advantage of the silliness surrounding his character – the baddie, here a privacy stealing Man Ray – and seemed to have so much fun every time he was on stage that he drew the most attention and applause. It didn’t hurt that his diction was the best of the bunch and his pojection grand.

It was rather good fun – literally and figuratively – and really easy on the eyes. I’m glad I went last week, not after the Petibon concert (though I wish I’d’ve posted this before that concert, it would’ve read a lot more lively). Sitting in those tiny bum seats in the Balcony (economy) section between a Spanish couple and two Polish women I thought to myself how the ENO audience often seems like the most relaxed. ENO has the biggest opera-presenting hall in London yet it somehow feels very cosy (must be the tiny bum seats) and up there it feels almost as chummy as TEC.


  1. There is a plot and there is logic but that’s not central to this production. 
  2. That was the only time the music and the production didn’t flow together for me. The Bloomsbury atmosphere is so strong, the thought of actual war is jarring. 
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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on March 24, 2017, in baroque, ENO, live performances and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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