Handel’s Opera Partenope with Boston Baroque Orchestra

A Social and Human Erotic Comedy

Nélida Nassar  10.20.2012


by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)
Libretto by Silvio Stampiglia
Boston Baroque
October 19 & 20, 2012

Martin Pearlman, Music Director
David Gately, Stage Director
Laura Stanfield Prichard, Pre-Concert Lecturer
Cast: Amanda Forsythe: Partenope, Queen of Naples; Owen Willetts: Arsace, Prince of Corinth; Kisten Sollek: Rosmira/Eurimene, beloved of Arsace; David Trudgen: Armindo, Prince of Rhodes; Aaron Sheehan: Emilio, Prince of Cumae; Andrew Garland: Ormonte

Boston Baroque, America’s first period-instrument orchestra, opened its season at Jordan Hall with Handel’s rarely performed opera Partenope. A comedy first rejected as too frivolous by the Royal Academy of Music in London, the text had been set 20 years earlier by Caldara for an opera that was a major influence on the young Handel. For its performance, Boston Baroque selected Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto. This three-act opera premiered in February, 1730 at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London less than two-weeks after the score was completed. It was Handel’s first break after a long string of opera seria.

Originally, Partenope was the name of the siren who tried to tempt Ulysses and who, upon failing, threw herself into the sea and drowned. Partenope is also the legendary queen who founded Naples, an ingénue whose habit of playing her two suitors Arsace and Armindo one against the other drags her country into war in her attempt to avoid the unwelcome attentions of a third one, Emilio. Things get even more complicated when Arsace’s beloved obsessive ex-lover, Rosmira / Eurimene, intrudes on the scene disguised as a man to avenge herself for the betrayal of her ex and to win him back again. As is often the case with Handel, this would appear to be the beginning of an interminable soap opera. Meanwhile, the eventual arrival of the rejected invader Emilio, is the catalyst that crystallizes this erotic comedy into a drama with recognizable social and human structures, in which an emotionally and politically naive society confronts its own values and loyalties. Handel’s erotic comedy tackles the numerous psychological links between desire and aggression, irony and regrets, lies and revelations, crises and overcomings, manipulations and ambiguities.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe leads a cast of six singers who grow in confidence and clarity as the evening progresses. Forsythe is an intense Partenope with a sterling voice, though at times she forces some of her coloratura and roulades while neglecting the seductive Amazonian femme fatale’s gestures her role calls for. Countertenor David Trudgen, Armindo, is the effete if attractive Prince of Rhodes, and tenor Aaron Sheehan in the pivotal role of the outsider Emilio, the handsome Prince of Cumea, provides some impressively poignant moments. Both princes are sexual cynicism personified. Baritone Andrew Garland as Ormonte has a beautiful timber that provides a break from the manneristic and at times affected countertenor’s vocal style.  Contralto Kriten Solek is a thrilling Rosemira / Eurimene, offering a powerful fire breathing interpretation. But it is counter-tenor Owen Willets, as Arsace, Prince of Corinth, with an astonishingly agile, forceful, unearthly voice, suggesting profound agonies of conscience who upstages them all. Although, all six singers act adequately, if a bit stiffly, they could do a better job of conveying the opera’s comedy, emotional intensity and portrait of seduction.

There are many recitatives and relatively few extended solo arias expressing unreciprocated love, but one wishes for more emotionally engaged duets. The obligatory sinfonia and march for the battle scene at the beginning of the second act is particularly memorable. Handel repeats certain motifs, da capo, over and over again; the same set of notes in one aria appears in another, becoming a bit predictable – even clichéd. The tone of the opera is cheerful and everyone ends up with the right partner.

The stage design is minimal consisting of an armchair in guise of a throne, a few benches and a Récamier with a paisley throw. Nevertheless, there was too much artifice with the excessive comings and goings of the characters. Ms. Forsythe as Partenope is the only singer who changes costumes in the course of the opera (wearing two short dresses, first blue, then green). One is struck by the absence of regalia and misses long red evening gowns. However, her Amazon’s costume consisting of pants, belt and boots seem to compensate for the short dresses.

Boston Baroque Orchestra’s performance under Martin Pearlman hits the right chord from the very start. It provides sonorous depth and beauty as well as lyrical elegance. Handel aficionados should not hesitate to attend.

Handel’s Partenope
Boston Baroque at Jordan Hall
Friday, October 19, 2012 and
Saturday October 20, 2012 at 7.30 p.m.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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