Michael Tanner

Handel’s oddity

Partenope<br /> <em> English National Opera</em>

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English National Opera

In his introduction to Handel’s Partenope in the programme book of ENO’s new production, John Berry, artistic director of the company, writes: ‘Partenope is full of wonderful music and a perfect vehicle for the gifted director Christopher Alden.’ We see where the priorities are — some dead metaphors are quite interesting, and ‘vehicle’ is among them: for what is, or should be, important is who the vehicle is for, and in this case it’s made clearer than usual that it’s the director who is having the fun, the work itself being what enables him to enjoy himself. Most opera-goers are probably more interested in enjoying themselves by an encounter with the work they are seeing, but many contemporary directors are making sure that we realise how crucial is the part which used to be played by someone called a stage manager. Sometimes it works. Writing in the Guardian last week Alden reflected on commuting between Leeds, where he has been working on his brilliant production of Tosca, and London for Handel. The Tosca is, as I wrote a fortnight ago, amazing in the fresh light it casts on a piece routinely dismissed as tired and merely nasty. But with Partenope it’s a matter not of casting fresh light, but of winning an audience for Handel’s operas without distorting them so that their music and what we see happening collaborate to yield a satisfying and unified experience.

That is very emphatically not what happens at the Coliseum. Handel’s admittedly odd opera is up to a point comic, but we need illumination about what the focus of the comedy is. Queen Partenope, founder of Naples, is wooed by an assortment of men, has fluctuating feelings about them, and surprisingly ends up with the least interesting (but that isn’t the point). Alden has naturally updated the action to the 1920s, as is the present-day vogue. For Alden it is surrealism that is the big turn-on, specifically the photography of Man Ray. If any fairly large-scale movement in the arts ever seemed dead beyond resuscitation, and welcomely so, it is surely that one. Who now can take an interest in the posturings of this collection of phonies, and anyway what has it got to do with Handel?

Possibly two things, Alden may think. One is that the high noon of surrealism was just after the first world war, and Handel and his librettist seem clear that Love and War are similar states, or activities. Second, the action of the opera is weird, sometimes dislocated, so what more natural than to compare it to (dread phrase) ‘the logic of dreams’, which the surrealists adored, because it meant they could do anything they liked without explanation? So we find this set of characters in a chic country house, playing cards frenetically, drawing a female nude on the wall, being photographed by a man with an unusual mask, one of the suitors; sitting disconsolately on the stairs; getting out and putting on first world war gas masks — that’s brief, since they tend to inhibit singing. The plot of Partenope is no more perspicuous than that of most Handel operas, but this is chaos. As sometimes with Brecht and his disciples, we are provided with a plethora of alienation effects when we have had no reason to feel close to anyone onstage in the first place. What could be farcical — but Handel’s music isn’t snappy enough to minister to farce — is only limp comedy. And, to come eventually to the music, there is insufficient pathos in the arias to warm our responses to any of the characters.

Partenope, capably sung by Rosemary Joshua, and looking like an early Coward character, reels off her coloratura, and manages long sinuous lines, but it’s hard to see what makes her so appealing, other than her being semi-available, but apparently no more, to all her suitors. One of them is so outstanding, both in the music (s)he is given, particularly in Act III, and in the performance he gets from Christine Rice, that any competition would seem absurd. Rice is now even creamier of voice than she was in Agrippina, with odd deliberate acid touches to make it still more exciting and, eventually, moving. Quite without intending to, I’m sure, she walks away with the performance. The insipid, undercharacterised Armindo, who finally wins Partenope, is well taken by the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. The only other female character, Rosmira, disguised almost throughout as a man, is ravishingly sung by Patricia Bardon. And in something quite substantially less than his best voice, John Mark Ainsley is the surrealist Emilio, who really does have problems distinguishing love from war, possibly because his mind is mainly on wearing silly beards and doing other typically surreal things.

The conducting seemed excellent, with Christian Curnyn (his recording of the opera is on Chandos) keeping things moving, but relaxing to magical effect in Act III when Handel at last hits top form. While the work lacks the dire longueurs of some of the other, more famous, operas, mostly it is not the composer at his finest. Or maybe if the production had a less faint relationship to the music, and were less obtrusive, I’d feel differently.