English National Opera’s 2016/17 season closes with a welcome revival of Christopher Arden’s Olivier Award-winning 2008 production of George Frederick Handel’s Partenope, first staged in 1730.
The plot, daft even by Baroque comic opera standards, revolves around the mythical Partelope, Queen of Naples, and her multiple suitors. Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, awash with cross-dressing, braggadocio and sexual intrigue, is agreeably frivolous fare.
Arden has transferred the setting to a 1920s weekend house party, with Partenope as a Nancy Cunard-style hostess, where the worst danger facing the assembled Bohemians is getting stuck in the downstairs lavatory. A Surrealist touch is added by modelling one of the suitors, Emilio, on photographer Man Ray. Jon Morrell’s costumes and Andrew Lieberman’s Art Deco sets are evocative, and Amanda Holden’s peppy translation suits the louche atmosphere well.
Soprano Sarah Tynan, all marcelled chic and crisp delivery, excels in her role debut as Partenope. Outstanding, too, is the rich mezzo of Patricia Bardon, in the primo uomo part of Arsace. Countertenor James Laing is engaging as silly ass Armindo, and there’s strong support from Stephanie Windsor Lewis (as Arsace’s jilted lover Rosmira) and Matthew Durkan (as the foppish Ormonte). Rupert Charlesworth, replacing Robert Murray at short notice, contributes a turbo-charged performance as the interloping Emilio. Noted Handelian Christian Curnyn, who also conducted the original production, marshals the ENO orchestra with brio.
It’s been bruited in some quarters that Partenope is subpar Handel, belonging at the back of the repertoire. That’s nonsense: it fairly bursts at the seams with unalloyed da capo bliss. (If you doubt me, sample Riccardo Minasi’s excellent 2015 recording, which at the time of writing was available here).
Partenope continues the glorious series of Handel revivals at the Coliseum that began with Nicholas Hynter’s near-legendary Xerxes, now over 30 years old. ENO should now dust off Agrippina, Rodelinda, Ariodante, Alicina and Semele – the lot. If the payoff is a run of semi-staged adaptations of ‘Carousel’ with Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe, then I, for one, say: Bring it on!
All photographs: Donald Cooper