21 Oct 2008

Partenope — English National Opera, London Coliseum

In this new staging of Handel's comic rarity for English National Opera, director Christopher Alden has chosen to tell the classical tale of amorous and political intrigue through the world of the artistic elite of the 1920s/30s.

The costumes and settings are directly inspired by specific examples of art photography from the period, with the programme illustrating a number of iconic photographic works which are clearly recognisable in the production.

Partenope_010.pngJohn Mark Ainsley as Emilio

The opera is set in a devastatingly chic salon (realised by Andrew Lieberman, with costumes by Jon Morrell), all cream walls and curved lines, the home of Rosemary Joshua's glacially glamorous socialite Partenope (done up, as illustrated by a Man Ray photograph in the programme, as Nancy Cunard). It is a place where the idle and moneyed artistic intelligentsia gather for a spot of highbrow theorising over a cocktail or two, and where the great realities of love and war are relegated to the rank of insignificant little playthings. It is not an obvious breeding-ground for sympathetic characters.

Neither, to be fair, is the libretto, cribbed by an anonymous writer for Handel from an original book by Silvio Stampiglia, and here delivered in a coarsely colloquial translation by Amanda Holden. Though the opera is named for Partenope, she is a character to whom one does not easily warm; though her enemy/rejected lover Emilio (John Mark Ainsley) is clearly supposed to be the primo uomo, he is drawn so sketchily, and takes such small part in the opera's core emotional intrigue, that he fades into the background. Alden's production seizes upon this, resolving the issue of what to do with him by giving him more of an observer role. In the context of the production's arty milieu, Emilio is characterised as Man Ray, with the often bizarre situations between the characters being set up and captured by him on film. At the start of the opera, the production exacerbates the problems caused by this detached characterisation; at the first interval I was dreading the prospect of a further two hours of empty posturing and artistic pretension, with any inconsistencies in the dramatic development being explained away with the blanket excuse that it's all in the cause of surrealism.

Fortunately, there are also characters we really care about, and it is they who sustain the story long enough for the development of dramatic interest and a bit more emotional realism in the second and third acts. First there's Arsace (Christine Rice), the spoilt cad who has won Partenope's heart, having conveniently forgotten to mention the lover whom he abandoned and still hankers after. Then there's Rosmira (Patricia Bardon), the abandoned lover in question, who (despite having been instantly recognised by Arsace) has disguised herself as a warrior by the name of Eurimene and followed him to a foreign land in search of both reconciliation and retribution. She is, by some margin, the most complex and sympathetic of the protagonists, and her central obsession with the feckless and unworthy Arsace is the source of some of the opera's most rewarding music. Finally there's Armindo, the diffident bumbling youth who is Partenope's best prospect for genuine happiness but who doesn't have the guts to say so.

As John Mark Ainsley's role contained some thanklessly unmemorable music, and Rosemary Joshua's coloratura and intonation were wayward at times, the three subsidiary characters also supplied the best value in terms of musical satisfaction. Rice's all-guns-blazing revenge aria at the close of Act 2 was delivered with pinpoint accuracy and a gutsy warmth of tone, and her puppyish arrogance was thoroughly convincing. What the score lacks in grand Handelian tragic arias, it attempts to compensate with some shorter episodes of heartfelt and honest music for Rosmira and occasionally as well as for Arsace; their third-act duet is one of the musical high points. Bardon suffered a glitch of some sort at the start of her Act 1 aria, but otherwise gave a well-rounded and musically sensitive performance. And it was fitting that Iestyn Davies gave the best and most memorable (if not the flashiest) vocal performance of the evening; it is his clarity, assurance and straightforwardness which at last succeed in winning Partenope.

Partenope_005.pngFull company

It was a decent ensemble cast, in a score which contains more multiple-voice numbers than are normally found in Handel, and all was held tautly together in the pit by ENO d├ębutant Christian Curnyn, more usually found at the artistic helm of the Early Opera Company.

As hit-and-miss as the production concept is, it underlines the inexplicable and bizarre ways in which seemingly poised and sophisticated people are driven to act in the pursuit of love.

Ruth Elleson © 2008