Review: Partenope, English National Opera

There’s a little something for everyone in the English National Opera’s revival of Christopher Alden’s Olivier Award-winning production of Handel’s Partenope.

If you’re in the market for a post-WWI, surrealist re-imagining of Naples, where Queen Partenope reigns, pursued by four suitors, you can revel in Alden’s bizarre, ever-inventive staging. If abstract, playful productions aren’t your thing, feel free to close your eyes and experience the most expertly sung Partenope you are likely to hear, performed by a phenomenal assortment of ENO mainstays and relative newcomers.

Alden’s production, which premiered at the ENO in 2008, takes the surrealist photographer Man Ray as a starting point. The stage is filled with cameras, projections, and giant posters of photos (striking set design by Andrew Lieberman). For Alden, the surreal aesthetic runs deep. Wacky, unexpected, and often inexplicable events transpire during most of the opera’s arias: Partenope’s suitor Emilio (the impressive understudy Rupert Charlesworth) poses the rest of the cast on the ground for a battlefield portrait while he serenades his beloved, and threatens to go to war to win her.

Arsace (the moving mezzo Patricia Bardon), another suitor, draws the outline of a naked woman on a wall while delivering her first act aria, and, as Partenope’s shyest suitor Armindo, countertenor James Laing channels Charlie Chaplin while clinging for dear life to the underbelly of a flight of stairs.

Alden insists that the audience never lose focus, and he is certainly successful: even when his staging becomes opaque, it remains arresting and seldom distracts from the opera’s silly storyline. Alden’s most illuminating and clearest decisions have to do with gender. The opera already features a female singer playing a man (Arsace was originally sung by a castrato) and a female singer playing a woman pretending to be a man (Rosmina disguises as Eurimene to try to win her fiancé Arsace back from Partenope). But Alden cleverly complicates the opera’s gender confusion, putting Partenope in tails and top hat in one scene, and presenting Ormonte (the bass Matthew Durkan) in a dress for the finale. (Dramaturgical programme notes clarify many of the other directorial choices, but it isn’t necessary to splurge on the £5 programme to appreciate Alden’s imagery.)

Amanda Holden’s weird but wonderful English translation sits smoothly on Handel’s shimmering, delectable score, crisply and wittily conducted here by Christian Curnyn. Holden sometimes dips into Handel-era formalities before giving the characters leave to deliver a remark of wild anachronism (“Just move it and tell her you love her,” Rosmina urges Armindo) or a foul-mouthed aside. Somehow, though, it always seems to work, and Partenope’s extended coloratura runs on the phrase “This drives you crazy” are somehow both freshly erotic and convincingly baroque.

The success of the particular aria in which that passage appears belongs entirely to the dazzling Sarah Tynan, an ENO superstar, who sings the title role nearly flawlessly. Coy and imperial, Tynan’s Partenope charmingly wrestles with her conscience, confronted with four diverse declarations of love. Tynan is a superb vocal storyteller, using her sumptuous instrument to seduce, to tease, and to challenge.

Alden and Curnyn have surrounded their star with a panoply of talent, and Handel has provided a showpiece (or three) for each singer. Laing’s clumsy, adorably smitten Armindo, and Stephanie Windsor Lewis’ feisty, gorgeously sung Rosmira stand out particularly for their clear, clever acting, but the whole cast seems vocally destined for these roles.

Partenope is an operatic London Eye, three and a half hours of rotating vocal razzle-dazzle, featuring aria after aria (and comic recitative after comic recitative) performed here by ENO’s most eminently gifted artists.

Partenope is playing at the London Coliseum until 24 March. For more information and tickets, see www.eno.org.