Curnyn and ENO Revive Alden’s 2008 Production of Handel’s Partenope with Splendid Results

19/03/2017

Handel, Partenope (sung in English): Orchestra of English National Opera / Christian Curnyn. London Coliseum, 15.3.2017. (CC)

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ENO’s Partenope (c) Donald Cooper

Handel, Partenope

Cast:

Partenope – Sarah Tynan
Arsace – Patricia Bardon
Armindo – James Laing
Rosmira (disguised as Eurimene) – Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
Emilio – Rupert Charlesworth
Ormonte – Matthew Durkan

Production:

Christopher Alden – Director
Andrew Lieberman – Set Designer
Jon Morell – Costume Designer
Adam Silverman – Lighting Designer
Amanda Holden – Translation

This is the first revival of a production first seen back in 2008 (see my review here). It impressed then, and it does so even more now. The cast has one constant, Patricia Bardon; however, she has switched roles, from Rosmira (disguised as Eurimene) to Arsace. Christian Curnyn returns to conduct.

The 1920’s staging by Christopher Alden is stunning, with its references to significant period personalities such as Man Ray (specifically, Emilio from Partenope’s cast), Remedios Varo and André Breton. A clever idea, too, to introduce a period “gramophone” on stage at one point. The convoluted plot with its over-profusion of disguise and dramatic feints remains as preposterous as ever; the achievement is that the evening traverses terrain from comedy and farce through to high pathos. Handel is the magician behind all of this, of course, in tandem here with Amanda Holden’s clean and often amusingly rhyming translation of Silvio Stampiglia’s original libretto. Andrew Lieberman’s sets are the epitome of sophistication (excepting, perhaps, the – Duchamp-inspired? – toilet of Act II), always expertly lit by Adam Silverman. Small wonder the original run took the 2009 Olivier Award (and later the 2011 Helpmann Award for Best Opera in Australia).

Emilio remains the chronicler-voyeur of all this, intrusively clicking away as an imposter in Partenope’s world. The part is taken by Rupert Charlesworth, winner of the 2013 Handel Singing Competition and substituting for Robert Murray. He has only appeared at ENO before as First Priest/First Armed man in Magic Flute so this was a major step forward for him, and he embraced both the acting challenges (he is a pest with confidence!) and Handel’s vocal demands. A superb assumption of this part.

The titular character, Partenope, was this time taken by Sarah Tynan (previously it had been the astonishing Rosemary Joshua). Early in the first act, Tynan took a while to settle in; and, indeed, it took a moment for the ear to adjust to her true soprano, but as the opera went on she embraced the character fully. Tynan is no stranger to Handel at the Coliseum, having taken the role of Romilda in Xerxes in 2014 and as the evening progressed so did her confidence. Her intervals were judged so exactly, and in her long da capo aria towards the end of the second act she showed how she can thin her voice to a veritable whisper, albeit one that projects to the upper reaches of the Coliseum’s vast spaces.

As to Rosmira, taken in 2008 by Bardon, Italian-trained (Florence and Bologna) mezzo Stephanie Windsor-Lewis, who debuted at ENO last year as Suzuki in Madam Butterfly, gave her all, positively shining in Act III and showing real gutsy energy towards the end in the confrontation with Arsace. One hopes she will be a regular visitor to St Martin’s Lane, taking some major roles. This time, Bardon took on Arsace, sustaining her long Act I aria perfectly and utterly focused throughout, particularly perhaps in the final act. Bardon’s Arsace was a well-rounded character, no mere mono-dimensional puppet.

James Laing sang Armindo (previously sung in 2008 by Iestyn Davies) and he was Nireno in ENO’s 2012 Julius Caesar. His tone was rather piercing but his voice was certainly strong; he is asked to deliver an aria while hanging off a staircase and performing all sorts of awkward movements, and did so brilliantly. Finally, Matthew Durkan as the deliciously camp Ormonte (most fetching in is hooped pink dress). Another recent arrival on the operatic scene (he won the 2014 Stuart Burrows International Voice Award), he clearly had a ball; his voice is strong and pleasing to the ear.

The characters reacted to each other superbly. Handel offers a quartet in the third act, and it was simply beautifully delivered. Moulding period style performance to modern instruments, the ENO Orchestra responded superbly to Curnyn’s direction. Swift tempos are not problematical, but unrelenting ones can be and on occasion there was sometimes a needlessly breathless feel. The Overture, though, was brisk and sprightly and throughout it should be noted that the orchestral violins in particular were superbly together when at speed. Piping oboes and horns gave a deliciously rustic and open feel to the soundscape on occasion, while the rapid Prelude to the final act was splendid. Another reminder, perhaps, of just what a fine orchestra ENO’s band can be under the right guidance. A long evening, to be sure, but a fascinating one. Partenope is a jewel of an opera.

Colin Clarke

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