Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Three Chamber Operas at the Aix Festival

Along with the celestial Mozart Requiem, a doomed Tosca and a gloriously witty Mahagonny the Aix Festival’s new artistic director Pierre Audi regaled us with three chamber operas — the premiere of a brilliant Les Mille Endormis, the technically playful Blank Out (on a turgid subject), and a heavy-duty Jakob Lenz.

Herbert Howells: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge has played a role in the evolution of British music. This recording honours this heritage and Stephen Cleobury’s contribution in particular by focusing on Herbert Howells, who transformed the British liturgical repertoire in the 20th century.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony no. 21 (“Kaddish”)

Mieczysław Weinberg witnessed the Holocaust firsthand. He survived, though millions didn’t, including his family. His Symphony no. 21 “Kaddish” (Op. 152) is a deeply personal statement. Yet its musical qualities are such that they make it a milestone in modern repertoire.

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera

When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale.

Handel’s Belshazzar at The Grange Festival

What a treat to see members of The Sixteen letting their hair down. This was no strait-laced post-concert knees-up, but a full on, drunken orgy at the court of the most hedonistic ruler in the Old Testament.

Kenshiro Sakairi and the Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic in Mahler’s Eighth

Although some works by a number of composers have had to wait uncommonly lengthy periods of time to receive Japanese premieres - one thinks of both Mozart’s Jupiter and Beethoven’s Fifth (1918), Handel’s Messiah (1929), Wagner’s Parsifal (1967), Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (1966) and even Bruckner’s Eighth (1959, given its premiere by Herbert von Karajan) - Mahler might be considered to have fared somewhat better.

Don Giovanni in Paris

A brutalist Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier, Belgian set designer Jan Versweyveld installed three huge, a vista raw cement towers that overwhelmed the Opéra Garnier’s Second Empire opulence. The eight principals faced off in a battle royale instigated by stage director Ivo van Hove. Conductor Philippe Jordan thrust the Mozart score into the depths of expressionistic conflict.

A riveting Rake’s Progress from Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival

Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century morality tale in eight paintings and with a pithy libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to Neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic ‘progress’ from blissful ignorance to Bedlam.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Christine Schäfer as Partenope and Kurt Streit as Emilio [Photo by Armin Bardel courtesy of Theater an der Wien]
24 Feb 2009

No Home for Heroes at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna — Pierre Audi’s new production of Handel’s Partenope.

Handel operas are like London buses — you wait for ages and then 3 come along together.

G. F. Handel: Partenope

Partenope: Christine Schäfer; Emilio: Kurt Streit; Arsace:David Daniels; Rosmira: Patricia Bardon; Ormonte: Florian Boesch; Armindo: Matthias Rexroth. Les Talens Lyriques. Christophe Rousset, conductor. Pierre Audi, producer. Theater an der Wien.

Above: Christine Schäfer as Partenope and Kurt Streit as Emilio [Photo by Armin Bardel courtesy of Theater an der Wien]

 

In the past few years we’ve seen several new productions of this very atypical Handel opera seria and all, except this one, have emphasised the comic elements rather than the tragic. Perhaps it’s because the story of Queen Partenope and her warring lovers is on the slight side, and there is no obvious heroic choice or battle to confront — just the question of who should end up in whose bed. So far, so soap opera.

But even soap operas need more than romantic liaisons, and Handel knew that — especially as at the time he wrote Partenope (five years before the better-known Alcina) he was struggling to re-establish his status with some lesser-known singers. He introduced many new musical and dramatic ideas to woo back his public, but he also had to work with some artists of more limited accomplishment than he was used to. It is a tribute to his artistry that the first fact effectively disguises the second.

The story is the usual mix of romantic betrayal, cross-dressed disguise, and misunderstandings. Pierre Audi imagines Partenope (Christine Schäfer, edgy, brittle, petite) as a wealthy socialite, ensconced in her American West Coast beach-side villa, surrounded with her lovers and their friends, served by a slightly mysterious butler, Ormonte (Florian Boesch, smoothly camp) and assorted hangers-on. They live an empty, artificial existence fuelled by sex, drugs and champagne (and the services of their personal trainer) to stave off the most dreaded threat of all: boredom.

But suddenly everything changes when her current favourite, Arsace, (David Daniels, tanned, trim and buffed) becomes aware that the latest guest to the party is his ex-fiancée Rosmira, (Patricia Bardon, as ever perfectly ambiguous) disguised as a man, Eurimene. Rosmira is out for revenge, of the most subtle and cruel kind, and from that moment on it is around Arsace that the whole opera revolves, as he is sucked in, smashed, and spat out again from this emotional vortex. There are two sub-plots involving another high-roller, Armindo, (Matthias Rexroth, handsome, stolid) and a slightly shady outsider, Emilio, (Kurt Streit, macho bike gear to the fore) who both covet Partenope’s favour, but it is the Arsace-Rosmira-Partenope triangle that is the powerhouse of this production.

PatenopeStreit&Schafer&Dani.pngKurt Streit (Emilio), Christine Schäfer (Partenope) and David Daniels (Arsace)

The whole opera is set in Partenope’s villa and between them Audi and set designer Patrick Kinmonth have created a most effective and intriguing space. Huge blocks of grey wall swivel on both the horizontal and vertical axis, rotating and metamorphosing into new rooms and passages. We glimpse pools and lawns upstage, and second floors are reached by ingenious stairways that mutate into windows. Lighting by Matthew Richardson is equally effective and mood-enhancing. The only off-note is a strangely-sloping apron above the orchestra pit — which on occasion has the effect of cutting off the singers’ feet from the parterre audience’s view and causing some obvious physical difficulty to Schäfer in particular, who wears dangerously high heels for most of the opera. Perhaps that explained her continual expression of worried vulnerability. There was no such physical difficulty for the rest of the cast: their costumes were very much modern “chic tat” - much leather, torn designer denim and expensive trainers — and there was evidence of long, detailed rehearsal in the slickness of their moves and interactions. The mock battle scene became a parody of itself — an ironic nod to the recent “combat fatigues and machine guns” genre of baroque opera stagings — with the characters enjoying a paintball style warfare game that only briefly suggested real danger. It’s musical impact was however real enough with some powerful work from the brass and winds.

In the pit, Christophe Rousset (at the harpsichord) led his experienced band Les Talens Lyriques with sure-footed verve and impeccable style throughout. This was not surprising, given their reputation, but a pleasant relief given some period bands’ apparent difficulty with intonation from time to time, especially with the dreaded natural horns. No such problems at first night — despite the wintry conditions outside and the oven-heat within. Tempos were non-controversial, line and attack sans pareil.

PartenopeDaniels&Bardon.pngDavid Daniels (Arsace) and Patricia Bardon (Rosmira)

Vocally, this first performance was patchy, and it was soon obvious who had got it right and who might need a re-think. In the title role Christine Schäfer sang correctly but without particular passion or gaiety, a strangely constrained performance that didn’t convey the sheer magnetism of Partenope the man-eater. The role has few slow, thoughtful arias, (Care mura is only an arioso) and her music can sound rather similar, so it is essential that the singer makes the most of this element of the character, despite any directorial view pushing it elsewhere. Having said that her Qual farfalletta and Io ti levo were convincingly sung.

In contrast, Handel wrote for the anti-hero Arsace some of the best and varied music of the opera. David Daniels was constantly impressive in his finely judged expressive singing, his innate baroque style, and his total immersion in one of this opera’s few characters that actually go through any significant emotional journey. Some of his colleagues could usefully study his use of the eyes to hold an audience. His coloratura work in the rage/despair aria at the end of the second Act, Furibondo spira il vento was scintillating; his eloquent and delicately original ornamentation in the melting Ch’io parto in the third a reminder of why he is the world’s first choice in these roles. Equally proficient and emotionally-charged was Patricia Bardon’s Rosmira/Eurimene — here is another singer who, like Daniels, understands the genre, and has the technical brilliance and dramatic skills to convince in any director’s visual world. Her character’s wounded pride and twisted love were impeccably portrayed. Io seguo sol fiero worked particularly well with the oboes and horns of Rousset’s orchestra. Her male impersonation throughout was well-judged to suit the requirements of the story.

Almost but not quite matching these two was Kurt Streit, more at home in Mozart than Handel, but well-versed in this particular role. His ringing tenor and athletic poise was as upfront as his biker-gear and he obviously enjoyed his brief forays upstage on the Harley-Davidson that lurked menacingly, it’s gleaming chromework a latent threat throughout. In contrast to the polite purr of the machine however, it occurred that someone might suggest that he moderates his decibel level — the cosier confines of the Theater an der Wien don’t need tenors to bounce off the walls.

PartenopeFightScene.pngDavid Daniels (Arsace), Patricia Bardon (Rosmira) and cast

In this production the other alto role of Armindo was taken by the young German countertenor Matthias Rexroth. Some of his music was cut and he therefore had less opportunity to make a strong vocal or dramatic impression. What we saw and heard was adequate, but tending to the wooden at times. In this version his character does not win the lady (at least we are left presuming so) and we are not surprised. The butler Ormonte was characterfully sung and acted by baritone Florian Boesch, who made the most of the ever-present “ring-master” role and who, in the end, actually referees the denouement of the whole opera — the “fight” between Arsace and Rosmira-as-Eurimene.

It is this finale which cleverly encapsulates Audi’s vision of Partenope’s latently violent world: the confrontation becomes an actual boxing match set inside the villa, complete with ropes, hanging microphone, glitzy scorecard girls and the protagonists in lurid red and white towelling robes. The watching characters seem to hold their breath as Arsace makes the winning blow: his opponent must fight, like him, bare-chested (and thus betray her sex). This cruel twist breaks her spirit, and reveals all the treachery and immorality lying beneath the sham glamour of their lives. Handel’s final chorus is oddly abrupt and Audi leaves us wondering whether any of them will ever love each other again. No heroes here in Vienna, just a baroque opera for the 21st century, and none the worse for it.

Sue Loder © 2009

Handel’s Partenope at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria. Remaining performances on 25th, 27th Feb. (T.Wey as Arsace on 27th only), and 1st, 4th and 6th March.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):