Review – Partenope – English National Opera

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Last night, Worthy Opponent and I went with our friend Cate to the London Coliseum, where the English National Opera was presenting Handel’s Partenope. This actually marked the second time we went to see Baroque opera in a week (the earlier time being Les Arts Florissants on Tuesday at the Barbican with an all-Rameau evening, nicely written up by Wechsler).

Opera’s a bit tricky for me – I like listening to people sing, but I don’t care for the sappy emotions of “classical” opera – both La Boheme and La Traviata leave me cold, though I really like Carmen and have a soft spot for Madama Butterfly. And I’m a big fan of Baroque music. I try to see Baroque opera as being mostly about musical/vocal fireworks and not so much about story telling – which is good because frequently the stories are just incredibly silly. While I may enjoy myself, I still can find myself worn out – as happened both nights this week after hour two went by. Those music lovers of old, how did they do it?

At any rate, despite having a plot so thin it would have served as a good dress for Salome, Partenope was a not bad night out, provided you enjoy this kind of music. I was excited to see two harpsichords in the pit as well as an archlute – the true sign of authenticity in the face of utter uselessness! Picking Christopher Curnyn, an “early opera specialist” (per the program) was, I think, a really good idea – instead of getting some mish-mash of musical styles, the whole thing sounded just right where it was supposed to be (and I’m a bit picky about this after ten years of early music concerts with the Early Music Guild back in Seattle).

I felt this performance had a particularly interesting set and staging. The set and costuming were inspired a lot by the photos of Man Ray (and other artists of the 20s), which I knew quite well from Bill Jay’s photo history classes at Arizona State, and included the showing of Ray’s 1923 film “Return to Reason.”

But … unfortunately, it all seemed to be sort of pasted on top of the opera itself as something to distract the audience rather than actually adding to the performance. There was a man wearing a flat piece of paper around his face wandering on the stage in a near total copy of Ray’s portrait of Andre Breton – but so what? He didn’t speak, he simply moved across the set, attracting attention to himself rather than the people who were actually performing. Partenope puts on a pile of bracelets up to her elbows, making herself look exactly like another portrait, of Nancy Cunard …. but again, how did it actually add to the show? (Admittedly as a costume device it was quite nice, but it was just not a moment of the level of importance as it was played to be.) These little fripperies were more distraction than addition, and in my mind show a real failure in the overall staging of the show. Did the director (Christopher Alden) have such a complete lack of faith in the text? I mean, certainly, the bits where the performers were standing around stiffly singing didn’t really have a lot to recommend them, either, but … well, at least act two was better than act one, even though I thought having the singers drape themselves across the stairs (and then sing, on their backs, while so draped) was quite novel.

There were certainly some fun moments with the performance, such as when the various guests at act two’s party were walking around on a balcony, appearing and then disappearing behind a row of screens, and when one or two arias were sung from inside a toilet (truly something I’d never seen done before – I’ve never even seen a commode on a stage during an opera before!). There were also so many women performing men’s roles that it all seemed like something from a louche 20’s Parisian bar, and when one of them took of their shirt to reveal herself MALE – countertenor Iestin Davies – I found myself completely surprised! That said, what this show was really about was lovely singing, and Rosemary Joshua was a great Partenope – her trills and vocal athletics seemed entirely casual and effortless, as if she could just go on all night and it wouldn’t have bothered her a bit. In fact, all of the cast was good, which probably shouldn’t come as any surprise given that they were chosen to perform on a huge stage in probably one of the only cities in the world where you can gather some two thousand people together to watch an obscure opera from the early 1700s – repeatedly!

However, I did find my patience wearing thin during the second act, and we decided to head home after its conclusion. Friday nights are almost always my weakest ones, and I just didn’t have it in me to watch all of the show. I had bought cheesy ten quid tickets up in the way upper side seats (H 46 if you care), and, while they were occasionally blocked, they were both more than good enough for the price AND they set me free to leave confident I’d got my money’s worth. Thanks to all of the performers for a lovely evening, and I look forward to more Handel soon – most likely The Messiah.

(This review is for a performance that took place Friday, November 7th, 2008. There will be a final performance of Partenope on November 12th. Be warned it’s three hours and forty-five minutes long. And do forgive my clumsiness in this review – I talk about opera so little it’s hard for me to find the right words to describe it.)

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One Response to “Review – Partenope – English National Opera”

  1. Review - Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas - Royal Opera House « Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] picking my dream production. Movement has frequently been a problem with Baroque opera for me (i.e. Partenope), and I thought with Macgregor, not only would this be taken care of, but we would actually have […]

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