Boston Baroque realized that a production of Partenope should eschew pretensions and embrace an opportunity to perform excellent writing by Handel and to field a compelling cast.
Partenope, Queen of Naples. Performed by Boston Baroque. Conducted by Martin Pearlman. At Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, October 20.
By Anthony J. Palmer.
In Handel’s opera Partenope, dueling countertenors mount the stage to vie for the fair hand of the title monarch, the queen of the ancient city of Naples. Only one could win her favor, though not without the intervention of a female imposter posing as a young man, who also swore devotion to the wise and beautiful ruler. Courted by four suitors, including the duke of a neighboring kingdom, Partenope playfully (and competitively) compels fealty by demanding expensive gifts. Ultimately, she chooses her true love, the reticent but devoted Armindo.
Handel’s opera, Martin Pearlman tells us in the program notes, was composed in 1730 for the King’s Theatre in London; although there is scant record of its reception, it was given six additional performances. The libretto, written in 1699, became a favorite of several composers, with 23 different settings completed before Handel composed his version. Little interest seemed to follow this early success, beyond a few additional settings in the early eighteenth century. What is so appealing about Handel’s version, as performed by Boston Baroque, is its endearing comedic approach, a satiric panache generated by the interplay of the characters and their acceptance of, as well as satisfaction, in their individual fates.
Given her enormous dramatic and vocal talent, Amanda Forsythe made Partenope the queen of the stage. Her mood swings toward each of the suitors were done with flair and self-assurance. The libretto was designed to give each of the protagonists recitatives and arias to display their art. Forsythe was nimble, focused, and tonally rich in her contributions. The libretto included only one duet and, as I recall, a couple of ensemble pieces.
Not to be outdone when it comes to élan and verve, Owen Willets as Arsace and David Trudgen as Armindo, suitors in the countertenor range, were her equals in vocal maturity, although each has distinctively different tonal qualities. The parts are written for virtuosi, and neither disappointed. Willets was assured in his role as principal suitor; Trudgen could have played his character a bit more forcefully. But that might have been a directorial decision because Armindo turns out to be the default selection of Partenope. In each of their solo arias, they showed the kind of agility usually asked of coloratura sopranos.
Handel wisely selected voice ranges to suit the libretto. The male poseur is a contralto: Eurimene (really Rosmira), to whom Arsace once dedicated his heart before he encountered Partenope. Kirsten Sollek as Eurimene/Rosmira was sufficiently strong as the antagonist vocally, but I would have wanted the same high level in the recitatives as well as the arias. One of the suitors, Emilio, sung by Aaron Sheehan, has a beautiful tenor voice with considerable presence. The rapid passages were executed expertly, and his dramatic abilities were well up to the task. Andrew Garland, the sole baritone and Partenope’s advisor, was effective in his less robust but still important role.
Partenope is pure fun. Boston Baroque realized that a production should eschew pretensions and embrace an opportunity to perform excellent writing by Handel and to field a compelling cast. The orchestra made a major contribution in two distinct ways. First, the group played a difficult score exquisitely. The contrasts in dynamics, articulations, and stylistic polish were done with the usual Boston Baroque panache and vitality. Second, the orchestra was, in effect, another actor in the drama. In its intertwining with the arias, it did more than supply supportive accompaniment. In my view, this is one of Handel’s best scores in its ability to illustrate character and mood instrumentally. The brass and percussion (timpani and side drum) was very effective in setting an archly anticipatory mood before a battle with Partenope’s neighbor, Emilio.
Presenting an opera in semi-staged form is a difficult task, but stage director David Gately kept the action moving with a minimum of props and setting. The actors made their entrances and exits logically and timely. The costumes hit the production’s only sour notes: they were not really appropriate to the period in which the opera is set. With a little more attention to how the actors are dressed—although Partenope was probably the best of the lot in this regard—would have gone a long ways toward minimizing distractions and reinforcing believability. Also, a glitch in the display of the English text after intermission was very annoying, given that the audience missed some important parts of the story. Nevertheless, Boston Baroque is to be commended for buffing this gem to a delightful shine.