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 sexual intrigue, cross-dressing, braggadocio and pathos, is agreeably frivolous fare.
Arden has recast Partenope as a Nancy Cunard-style hostess and transferred the setting to a 1920s weekend house party, where the greatest risk to the assembled Bohemians is getting stuck in the downstairs lavatory. The decision to model one of the suitors, Emilio, on photographer Man Ray adds a Surrealist touch. Andrew Lieberman’s Art Deco sets and Jon Morrell’s costumes 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, deserving to be pushed to 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 follow it up by dusting off Agrippina, Rodelinda, Ariodante, Alicina and Semele – the lot. And 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