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<em>Partenope</em>, English National Opera
18 Mar 2017

Handel's Partenope: surrealism and sensuality at English National Opera

Handel’s Partenope (1730), written for his first season at the King’s Theatre, is a paradox: an anti-heroic opera seria. It recounts a fictional historic episode with a healthy dose of buffa humour as heroism is held up to ridicule. Musicologist Edward Dent suggested that there was something Shakespearean about Partenope - and with its complex (nonsensical?) inter-relationships, cross-dressing disguises and concluding double-wedding it certainly has a touch of Twelfth Night about it. But, while the ‘plot’ may seem inconsequential or superficial, Handel’s music, as ever, probes the profundities of human nature.

Partenope, English National Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sarah Tynan

Photo credit: Donald Cooper


Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto contains the requisite amorous knots endured by classical kings and queens. Partenope, the founding Queen of Naples, is courted by three royal lovers: Arsace, Prince of Corinth, who is first in line for Partenope’s affections; the affectatious Armindo, Prince of Rhodes; and Emilio, Prince of Cumae, who, spurned by the Queen, determines to make war not love. Arsace’s abandoned fiancée, Rosmira, disguises herself as Eurimene in order to pursue her betrayer, and becomes Partenope’s fourth suitor.

ENO Partenope Sarah Tynan, Matthew Durkan, Patricia Bardon, James Laing and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis (c) Donald Cooper.jpg ENO Cast. Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

Director Christopher Alden largely ignores the historic context and plumps instead for ‘Partenope the sailor-serenading siren’ who, so the myth goes, cast ashore on the Neapolitan coast after throwing herself into the sea in her despair at not having been able to sing Ulysses to his death. Alden and his excellent design team - Andrew Lieberman (set), Jon Morrell (costume), Adam Silverman (lighting) - set the action in a Parisian salon of the 1920s at the height of Surrealism. Ironically, ‘Partenope’ means ‘virgin’ in Greek, for it’s the bedroom which is the battleground here.

The Surrealists sought to overthrow society’s ‘rules’ and demolish its reliance on ‘rational thought’. Their philosophy - as summed up by artist-at-the-helm, André Breton - might seem potentially risky for a director seeking to untangle the libretto and offer a credible context: ‘thought expressed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.’

Tapping the subconscious and liberating the creative power of the unconscious mind could prove profitable though. Alden turns Partenope into Nancy Cunard, in whose art deco apartment various artists gather to drink, play cards, tap dance, twirl batons, distastefully prat about with gas marks and bayonets, graffiti the pristine white walls with Matisse-squiggles and lewd symbols, and pay ardent homage to their hostess. A spectacular sweeping staircase is a death-trap to the inebriated, and if the hedonists don’t slip on the banana skins that are literally thrown around the stage then there’s the risk of getting locked in the lavatory (toilets dominate the second Act, complementing the smutty colloquialisms of Amanda Holden’s translation). By Act 3, the sharp suits of Act 1 have been abandoned for pyjamas and various states-of-undress.

ENO Partenope cast 3 (c) Donald Cooper.jpg ENO cast. Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

Emilio is now photographer Man Ray. I presume that the photographs that he obsessively snaps - of artfully piled bodies and kinky indulgences - are designed to ‘expose’ the protagonists to reality. In Act 3 Emilio climbs a ladder and slowly assembles a collage-mural: what starts off looking like a monochrome of Matisse’s ‘The Snail’ is revealed as Man Ray’s 1934 ‘Nude Bent Forward’.

The design is certainly chic and Silverman’s chameleon-like lighting is superbly evocative. But, there’s no clear raison d’être. Handel’s humour is underpinned by honesty: even Partenope’s desire is sincere, if itinerant, and Armindo values fidelity - as he sings (in Holden’s words), in ‘Nobil core, che ben ama’: ‘Faithful lovers wisely ponder/ that if fancy never wanders,/ they’ll achieve a life sublime./ Constancy’s a thing to cherish;/ truthful love need never perish/ e’en until the end of time.’

Alden’s concept is not true to such avowals. His is a world of artifice: sophisticated but superficial. There’s a lack of emotional engagement between his characters, and twixt them and us: we simply don’t care about their urbane game-playing.

ENO Partenope Rupert Charlesworth and Sarah Tynan (c) Donald Cooper.jpg Rupert Charlesworth (Emilio) and Sarah Tynan (Partenope). Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

But, the superb performances of the ENO cast offer a compensating allure. As the eponymous Queen, Sarah Tynan poses and struts, preens and sings with classy aplomb: whether sporting the jangling bangles of a trouser-suited Nancy Cunard, or the natty top hat and tails of Marlene Dietrich, Tynan convey’s Partenope’s Amazonian self-belief and spirited sensuality: she’s in love with Love. Her soprano is quite light, but flexible and clear, sparkling but never hard-edged. After a slightly hesitant opening aria (conductor Christian Curnyn pushes the pace throughout) she crafted the phrases with style and hit the hemi-demi-semi-quavers with panache - even when asked to stoke an old stove during the florid ‘Qual farfalletta’ (Act 2) to imitate the flaming passion of Cupid about whom she sings.

Given that this opera requires its cast to sing their arias dangling from staircases, balancing astride toilet seats and while climbing ladders, it seems sadly ironic that tenor Robert Murray was forced to withdraw from the role of Emilia following a fall which left him with severe concussion (of course, we wish Murray a swift recovery). Rupert Charlesworth was an admirable last-minute replacement: his firm tenor raged and ranted with indignant wrath in ‘Barabaro Fato si’ - an extravagant diatribe against fate - when he found himself imprisoned in Partenope’s toilet.

ENO Partenope James Laing 3 (c) Donald Cooper.jpg James Laing (Armindo). Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

As Armindo, James Laing survived the Chaplin-esque clowning required of him without physical or vocal mishap - ‘Volio dire al mio tesoro’ was sung while swinging perilously from the curving staircase. Laing was rewarded for enduring the ‘funny business’: Armindo gets his girl in the end.

ENO Partenope Sarah Tynan and Matthew Durkan 2 (c) Donald Cooper.jpg Matthew Durkan (Ormonte) and Sarah Tynan (Partenope). Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

Looking like Lytton Strachey, bass Matthew Durkan was effective as Partenope’s chief guard, Ormonte, dispatching the coloratura cleanly and firmly. The role of Rosmira was sung impressively by rising star Stephanie Windsor Lewis; the ENO orchestra’s horn section made a colourful contribution to her aria, ‘Io seguo sol fiero’.

It was Patricia Bardon, though, as the pompous chancer Arsace, who stole the show. During the first run of the production in 2008, Bardon sang Rosmira; here she was a lustrous Arsace whose humiliation and sorrow were heartbreakingly conveyed in the slow, affecting Ch’io parta? Sì crudele’ (Act 3).

ENO Partenope Patricia Bardon 3 (c) Donald Cooper.jpg Patricia Bardon (Arsace). Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

Charles Burney judged Partenope to be ‘among the best of Handel’s dramatic productions’ and on the evidence of the score and the singing enjoyed here it’s hard not to agree. But, while Alden gives us luxury, lightness and louche-ness, the pleasures and pains of love - something of Così’s paradoxes? - are replaced by a Surrealist dream which doesn’t quite satisfy.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Partenope

Sarah Tynan - Partenope, Patricia Bardon - Arsace, James Laing - Armindo, Rupert Charlesworth - Emilio, Stephanie Windsor Lewis - Rosmira, Matthew Durkan - Ormonte; Christopher Alden - Director, Christian Curnyn - Conductor, Andrew Lieberman - Set Designer, Jon Morrell - Costume Designer, Adam Silverman - Lighting Designer, Orchestra of English National Opera.

English National Opera, Coliseum; Wednesday 15th March 2017.

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