Partenope, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, March 2017

When this Handel opera first opened in London in 1730 it came as something of a surprise from a composer known for his serious opera (opera seria). Despite a structure that follows that form however, its romantic complications and gender confusion make for a light-hearted comedy.

All images ENO/ Donald Cooper

Partenope, the founder of Naples in classical legend, appears to field four suitors. The main two are the princes Arsace and Armindo, joined by Emilio, whose country is at war with Naples, and a mysterious man called Eurimene, who is really Arsace’s previous lover Rosmira in disguise. She has pursued him to Naples, and is alarmed to find that Partenope clearly prefers Arsace. She confronts him secretly, trying to get him to abandon Partenope, and eventually, in her role as Eurimene, challenges him to a duel. He cleverly insists they fight bare-chested, which forces her to reveal she is a woman, but all ends happily with plans for a double wedding: Partenope with Armindo, and Rosmira with Arsace.

Arsace, Partenope, Armindo

Director Christopher Alden has transferred this fanciful plot to the 1920s Paris of the surrealists, with Partenope presiding over a salon, and Emilio as Man Ray. It works sufficiently well to have won the 2009 award for best new opera production after its first outing, and this revival is once again conducted by Christian Curnyn with sensitivity and panache.

Emilio and Partenope

Sarah Tynan made a sexy and alluring Partenope, her coloratura a delight though she showed a tendency to swallow her words. The surtitles in Amanda Holden’s vernacular translation helped, as did the beautifully sinuous movements that place her above the fray. Among the suitors, Patricia Bardon’s Arsace exhibited marvellous technique and feeling, her frustration late in Act I and the tumultuous feelings she expresses at the end of Act II delivered with great power. Well-matched by Stephanie Windsor-Lewis as her lover Rosmira/ Eurimene, the two made a wonderful focal point that seems to leave the poor Armindo as an also ran. Counter-tenor James Laing did wonders with this role, his voice ever steady despite the physical demands of the production, with a wonderful pleading aria in Act II, and I loved the conjuring tricks in Act III. As the strange interloper Emilio, Rupert Charlesworth stepped into the role late and was magnificent, his strong tenor bringing a very welcome dose of testosterone to this salon of counter-tenors and female voices, counter-balanced only by the occasional intervention of bass-baritone Matthew Durkan as Ormonte.

Final scene

A fun evening, well-restaged by revival movement director Elaine Brown.

Performances continue on various dates until March 24 — for details click here.

Leave a Comment