Opera of the Month - Partenope

A belated Happy Valentine’s day to all our readers! We hope you spent a wonderful day celebrating love in whichever way you saw fit. Whether you are single or not, newlywed or part of an old married couple, we can guarantee that you will consider yourself better off than the characters in this week’s opera. Next month, Handel’s comic opera Partenope will be playing at the ENO and, let us tell you, this is one tangled love web.

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First performed in 1730, as with many of Handel’s operas, this three-act piece was largely forgotten about until the 1980s – and almost never came into being at all. He originally proposed the idea to the Royal Academy of music in 1726, wanting to compose to Silvio Stampiglia’s 1699 libretto, which had already been adapted several times before, but the idea was rejected. Seen as too frivolous and uncommercial, the libretto lay on the shelf for several years before Handel took up the idea again, writing his first comic opera since Agrippina. Finishing the score just a fortnight before its London premiere, the work was a hit, running for seven performances and being revived twice – once that year, and then again in 1737.

Since then, it has been performed all over the world and this March the ENO is reviving its popular Christopher Alden version, first staged in 2008. Translated by British librettist Amanda Holden, this Olivier Award-winning production will star soprano Sarah Tynan as Partenope, mezzo Stephanie Windsor Lewis as Rosmira, and Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as Arsace. Alden’s version is set in the 1920s with set design inspired by Man Ray’s Surrealist imagery.

Act One opens in Naples, at Queen Partenope’s house, where she is throwing a party. The guests include Arsace – her new beloved – Emilio and Armindo, both of whom are suitors for her hand, and an unknown guest called Eurimene (who is secretly Arsace’s former fiancée, Rosmira, in disguise) Thus commences a series of events which sees Armindo try (and fail) to let Partenope know how much he loves her, Rosmira consistently embarrassing Arsace, and Emilio suggesting a “war game” which nearly ends badly for Partenope and certainly does end badly for Emilio, who is disgraced. Things reach their crux when Eurimene challenges Arsace to a duel, and he must decide whether to fight the woman he once loved, or risk losing the woman he loves now… You’ll have to watch the opera itself to find out how that one works out. No spoilers here!

Handel’s work follows the basic structure and forms of the opera seria for which he is best known, but it is humorous in subject – with the typical cases of gender confusion and hidden identities – as well light-textured musically. Unusually for Handel, there is a comic quartet in the third act, and the work’s other notable features are the orchestral passages interspersed with ariosos and recitatives during act two’s “battle” scene.

In short, this is a charming, light-hearted work, with surprisingly feminist overtones – though, perhaps, not a roadmap for love in the real world…