Robert Tanitch reviews ENO’s Partenope at London Coliseum
In 1726 Owen Swinney, manager of the London opera, dismissed the erotic libretto for Handel’s Partenope as entirely unsuitable for the Royal Academy of Music.
He thought the sexual intrigues might do for the depraved taste of the Italians but the erotic intrigues were too scandalous for the English.
The opera did not premiere until 1730 and has rarely been seen since in England
Christopher Aiden’s award-winning 2008 production for ENO is having a highly welcome revival. Christian Curnyn conducts again.
The production is in good shape. It looks good and it sounds good.
Alden – taking his inspiration from the Surrealists – has given the opera a 1920’s Paris Art Deco setting all in white with a curving staircase.
The characters smoke cigarettes, drink cocktails, play cards and are liable – in Amanda Holden’s jolly translation at least – to swear.
Partenope (which means virgin in Greek) is the mythical founder of the city of Naples. She is also famous as one of the Sirens, who lured young sailors to their death.
Sarah Tynan’s Partenope is dressed to look like 1920’s society hostess and very stylish and chic she is, too. Surrounded by her warring lovers she looks ready to be photographed by Man Ray.
Rupert Charlesworth plays the cynical Emilio as if Emilio were Man Ray and photographs everybody, including the audience.
James Laing is often very funny as a timid admirer, falling up stairs and doing a vaudeville routine with top hat and cane.
Matthew Durkan sports a Lytton Strachey beard and later gets into full 17th century costume and looks absurdly over-the-top.
Handel’s music is ravishing and Sarah Tynan, Stephanie Windsor-Lewis (with moustache disguised as a man), Patricia Bardon, James Laing and Rupert Charlesworth sing to lots of applause.