Handel: Partenope

English National Opera

ENO at The Coliseum, London, 10 October 2008 3 stars

Rosemary JoshuaENO has a high reputation for staging Handel's operas, and with this new production of his little-known 1730 comedy Partenope the line of succession continues: it's another show of glamorous sets and stylish singing.

Nevertheless, neither Christopher Alden's direction nor Christian Curnyn's conducting makes for an entirely satisfying evening, and while there are plenty of laughs and not a few ear-catching moments, I never once felt emotionally engaged.

The programme synopsis and cast list for the production go to great pains to blur the identities of the characters. In an opera where that issue is already obscure, it takes a while to become attuned to what's going on. Alden's ploy has been to obfuscate the fact that, for instance, Partenope is the Queen of Naples and Arsace, Armindo and Emilio are princes. Instead, he focuses on the idea of Partenope as a siren, a dangerous object of desire, and sets her court in a Parisian salon of the early 1920s.

The erotic impulse is foregrounded at the expense of the political dimension of the story; for me, that slackens some of the tension in the plot, though Alden finds plenty in the characters' interrelationships. The atmosphere of the Surrealists pervades the production, so that a dreamlike perfume wafts through the action, allowing the director to explore how the liberation of the desires that are at the centre of man's dreams permits the heart to win the day rather than the head.

Inhibitions are tossed to the wind as the characters kiss, change gender and strip their clothes off at will. A Patricia Bardon and Christine Ricetoilet is the centrepiece of the action in Act 2, so that a private place becomes a public ground for deliberation, and the curtain goes up on the third act to show the characters in their dressing gowns. Bookending the opera at both ends is a fast-moving card game in which the characters sit around dressed a bit like French artists and philosophers, drawing parallels (or not) between the liberating age of Enlightenment which inspired Handel so very deeply and the disciples of Freud in the post-First World War era. Standing outside it all as the postmodern observer is Emilio, who is portrayed as the surrealist photographer Man Ray. Whilst playing an active part in the plot, Emilio's disruptive influence is created by his power to capture images of the characters' kinky desires; as he gradually, pastes large fragments of a portrait on the wall in the final act, the protagonists are enlightened, in every sense, about their true selves.

PartenopeAll of this, and more, goes into a typical Alden production, jam-packed with ideas and imagery (it even has a schizophrenic banana-throwing episode to balance the apple-throwing incident in his brother's production of Ariodante for the company). The problem is that, unlike the characters he portrays, Alden is all head and no heart. Sincere, deeply-felt emotions just don't seem to emerge. In part, I think that's a flaw inherent to the opera: a fundamentally serious story ends in happiness, and it's hard to reconcile the work's comic status with the seriousness of many of the arias' texts. To Alden's credit, much of the evening is very funny and entertaining, but there's something distancing about both the heavily-layered approach and the hedonism of the characters in this telling.

Meanwhile, I'm afraid I wasn't much enamoured of Curnyn's conducting which, like his Early Opera Company Semele last year, went from the extremely fast to the enervated and rarely allowed enough space for expression. Too often the singers struggled to sing the faster arias because of the ambitious tempi, while the slower arias needed so much more shape to entice us to concentrate throughout their considerable lengths.

John Mark AinsleyThe cast, however, was headed by three excellent women. Rosemary Joshua's prowess as a Handel interpreter continues with a confident portrayal of the title role; the amount of music she had to sing appeared to hold no fears for her. Patricia Bardon, one of the most gifted baroque singers in the world, negotiated the runs with flexibility, sang with a richness of tone and revelled in the gender-bending opportunities the role of Rosmira afforded her. Christine Rice was astoundingly brilliant in the trouser role of Arsace – truly, a suspension of disbelief was not required – and although I felt she had a tendency to apply vibrato a little too constantly, the attack and vigour of her singing was admirable.

Countertenor Iestyn Davies, too, was brilliant, with no apparent tension in any register of his voice and the ability to project strongly throughout. However, I was slightly disappointed with John Mark Ainsley, not at his vocal peak as Emilio.

Alden's approach to Partenope is interesting (though he was both cheered and booed at the curtain call), and the opportunity to see so rarely-staged a piece given such a lavish staging is not to be missed, especially with this cast. Nevertheless, it never comes close to the great days of the Charles Mackerras-Ann Murray-Nick Hytner ENO Xerxes, for instance.

By Dominic McHugh

Review our interview with Christine Rice.

Photographs: Catherine Ashmore.