Händel’s Partenope

This is no museum piece; cool concrete visions of a modern women

David Daniels as Arsace and Patricia Barden as Rosmira

  as Arsace and Patricia Barden as Rosmira in the opera Partenope | Photo: Armin Bardel/ Theater an der Wien

Slowly, revivals of lesser-known works by George Frideric Handel are beginning to reappear on concert schedules, helped by 2009 being a “Handel year” (250 years after his death). Still, these are rare enough, so we must applaud the Theater an der Wien for offering us two obscure baroque riches in one season (in addition to the Messiah, which needs no introduction). After Ariodante last fall, a glorious four-and-a-half hours with not a note cut, now comes Partenope, with six performances between Feb. 22 and Mar. 6.

German-born Händel, who, following a sojourn in Italy, arrived in England in 1710 at the age of twenty-five already a mature composer, found a public that had already developed a taste for Italian opera. Beginning at the Queen’s Theatre at Haymarket, he began a career in London that was to last until his death forty-nine years later. Although Handel’s popularity today rests on a few, mostly religious oratorios – at least in English-speaking countries – he was primarily a man of the theater and clearly had a profound understanding of human character and emotions. For his adopted city and audience, he composed over forty Italian operas and other works for the stage.

Opera at that time was as much a business as it is now, needing just as many administrative and PR maneuvers to keep financially afloat. Following a number of successful opera seria in the heroic mold, Partenope was composed during a low swing in 1730, when Händel was trying to revive his audience with a new style of ironic comedy, and the introduction of new singers from Italy. Novelty was then, as now, a key to box-office profits. Partenope was not a hit. Whether too frivolous or too immoral, Partenope has remained one of his lesser-performed operas.

In Greek mythology, Partenope was the siren who threw herself into the sea after Ulysses passed her by. Her body washed up onto the shore of what was to become Naples, and she later became the patroness of that city.

In this story, she is Naple’s queen, a femme fatale with princely suitors on all sides. Arsace is her favorite, although on occasion she notices the desiring glances of Armindo. A third contender, Emilio from a neighboring kingdom, declares war to attract the queen’s attention. Things become still more complicated when Rosmira, the forgotten betrothed of Arsace, appears at the court dressed as a man, bent on revenge, or perhaps on winning back her fiancé. Throughout, Ormonte remains a loyal friend to the queen, albeit on the sidelines.

However, at Theater an der Wien, the staging by Pierre Audi was definitely no museum piece: It was full of cool concrete and visions of David Hockney’s “Beverly Hills Housewife.” And despite the historical instruments of the baroque orchestra, any fears that dust might have accumulated there were instantly swept away by the first notes of Les Talens Lyriques and the energy of their conductor, Christophe Rousset. The clear and bright strings reflected the California sunlight; the rough brilliance of the baroque horns underlined the military strategists.

The Queen Partenope of this production has become a thoroughly modern woman, living in social structures that are understandable to us, if not personally, at least vicariously through the tabloid lives of the rich and glamorous, with their obligatory personal trainer, masseuse and life style assistant. And we are presented an echo of the anonymity in our 2009 daily relationships – text messages making do for real conversations, screen saver photos reminding us of what our loved ones look like, an affair ended by e-mail.

Quite a setting for a baroque opera and its peculiarity, male roles sung by high voices. Arsace, brilliantly performed by countertenor David Daniels (and in one scheduled performance, Terry Wey, a rising star we will see more of), moves within a great emotional range: from the riveting and absolutely breathtaking rage in his “Furibondo” aria to the deep anguish in “Parto ma senza cor” (I leave, but my heart stays with you).

In Christine Schäfer’s Partenope we were given an impetuous lover with virtuosic pearls of sound, carefully elegant and aloof, but still revealing, in unguarded moments, the ragged voice of longing. Patricia Bardon as Rosmira displayed wonderful flexibility in her deep-timbered emotional turmoil, swaying between the thirst for revenge and inner desperation in the misery of heartbroken love.

The second countertenor, Matthias Rexroth as Armindo, had a voice that remained shy and hopeful, but perhaps that suited the role. And finally, Kurt Streit as Emilio, ardent and macho, his tenor powerful and clear, and, gratefully, a few really fine low tones from Florian Boesch as Ormonto, who despite not much to do or say was ever a ready host for his mistress’s guests.

And what beautiful melodies, long-breathed but full of rhythmic flexibility! Despite the row upon row of typical da capo arias, they were never boring or tiring, but full of vitality and freshness. Nevertheless, in this opera about desire and passion, Handel gives his couples only three short moments to sing together in harmonious thirds, as two hearts beating together. A metaphor of our time?

The staging was careful down to the smallest details: the dot of red in a Sigg bottle, the sun salutation yoga pose, the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. But it was also notable in directing choices: the last-minute hopeful turn of a hand, the hardened face listening to the pleas of the rejected lover and its immediate distressed melting when he leaves. It is remarkable how sensual the characters became in front of this contemporary backdrop, their presence and warmth only matched by an exceptionally sexy Harley Davidson.

In the end, each has lost what was most desired, Rosmira riding off with Emilio on the machine into the sunset, not a glance over her shoulder. This was not the original ending, but nonetheless Handel would undoubtedly have approved. An innovator, he was always quick to adapt to the needs and moods of his audience.

In the early 1890s, George Bernard Shaw wrote that “…we get broken in to the custom of singing Handel as if he meant nothing; and as it happens he meant a great deal, and was tremendously in earnest about it. We know rather less about him in England than they do in the Andaman Islands, since the Andamans are only unconscious of him, whereas we are misconscious.”

We can be happy that in Vienna in 2009 this is no longer the case, that Händel is finally being sung with “unembarrassed sincerity of dramatic expression” and that we too can take pleasure in his timelessness.

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