The power of music
05/23/01 and 25, 26 May
George Frideric Handel: Partenope
Jeni Bern (Partenope), Stephen Rooke (Emilio), Diana Moore (Armindo), Louise Mott/Natalie Hobday (Rosmira), William Purefoy (Arsace)
Christian Curmyn (conductor), Netia Jones (director)
Early Opera Company Orchestra
05/25/01 and 26 May
George Frideric Handel: Alexander's Feast
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Michael George (bass)
The remaining Handel performances in this year's Covent Garden Festival (after Chlori, Tirsi and Fileno in the nightclub Heaven) are more conventional, and indeed annual fixtures in this very mainstream festival. Both performances were musically spot on, but had hints of limited preparation in some quarters, not unusual in summer festivals and not enough to ruin things.
Partenope, first produced in 1730, is performed comparatively rarely. It's one of Handel's more difficult operas, basically a sex comedy with politico-military trappings in a quasi-pastoral mythical setting. Partenope is a randy, non-neurotic Dido, building her new city, which will become Naples, the source of the original libretto and perennial home of sex comedies. Partenope's consort of the moment is Arsace, who has left Rosmira at the altar. Terribly polite Armindo is a secret admirer, and Emilio is the thug king of the nearby kingdom who also wants her and will fight if she won't have him. Rosmira drags up as the soldier Eurimene and offers military assistance, while encouraging Armindo to tell Partenope of his love and swearing Arsace not to reveal that she is a woman. Rosmira, although a close relative of Bradamante and Amastri (in Serse) is more deranged and vengeful than either of them, and her scariness is probably the greatest source of difficulty with this opera. Though Arsace's funny device to get out of fight to the death with her (he insists they fight bare chested) might also have caused problems for the original producers.
Netia Jones' production was cool and economical. Everything was seen in terms of military-industrial corporate power politics, which meant chain-store costumes and furniture, and army surplus (or easily rented) uniforms and kit. The five characters were more or less in a TV drama series, and the action, possibly with some help from an English translation by Stephen Wadsworth and Carol Borah Palca, unpacked nicely enough into contemporary realism until the end, which was a bit obscure. This left the singers each with a kind of pose to take up so they could get on with the singing.
Jeni Bern as Partenope somehow made the power of her music, superbly sung, exactly right for an executive tart. Diana Moore as the slightly soppy Armindo (a stylish nerd in specs) also sang wonderfully. Sadly, the advertised Rosmira, Antonia Sotgiu, had suffered a miscarriage and couldn't perform. Louise Mott sang Rosmira forcefully from the pit, reading most of the time, but with only one obvious mishap, while the assistant stage manager Natalie Hobday acted the role on stage. Hobday looked appropriately sullen and angry throughout. (Although going on in extremis is one of the dogsbody duties of the ASM, you couldn't help admiring her cool, especially as she had to get her kit off during the overture.) But this emergency measure meant that the key character was, well, not quite coherent - Mott's singing couldn't have come from Hobday's character - and the result was at times hard to follow.
Stephen Rooke was funny in the Very Stupid Tenor role of Emilio (storming in with a parachute at the start), though his character became extremely strange towards the end, probably the result of combining roles. William Purefoy has the sweetest voice, and he acted the corporate pet perfectly, but you couldn't quite see why Rosmira would bother with him, except to justify rhetorical exercises in rage.
Alexander's Feast, performed by The Sixteen at the ghastly Peacock Theatre, is even more an exercise in rhetoric. A setting of Dryden's poem, it presents a survey of the emotional effects music can arouse, from desire though calm and mourning to vengeful rage, illustrated by airs that the bard Timotheus performs at the feast to celebrate Alexander's victory over the Persians. There is a postscript, noting that St Cecilia's organ did even better than Timotheus' lyre. The setting is static, but Handel's music is innovative, hinting at the "ancient" modes and using some bold orchestral effects. It's his equivalent of Rameau's Les fêtes d'Hébé, though Rameau's work is so much more technically complex that the comparison probably sells Handel's radicalism short. Certainly, Alexander's feast is far bolder in its focus on music for itself that Handel's otherwise comparable English works, L'allegro and Solomon.
Its comparative obscurity might be due to the fact that both the text and the music are full of quotations: "Only the brave deserve the fair" and "the vanquish'd victor", but also the first movement of the harp concerto (representing Timotheus' lyre), tinkled on many a music box and even mobile phone, and "Revenge, Timotheus cries", a shower favorite. You sort of think you know it already when you don't.
The Sixteen sang the choruses with their usual style and confidence, though they were at a bit of a disadvantage stuck behind the orchestra on the Peacock's stage. The orchestra itself was also superb, though, getting plenty of mileage out of Handel's expressive instrumental writing. Maxine Eilander, especially, gave a great performance of the harp concerto. Anthony Rolfe Johnson seemed to be reading the tenor solo part at times, though he was almost always solid and engaged. Carolyn Sampson, a former member of the Sixteen, sounded as luscious as an idiomatic Handel soprano can, and looked splendid as well, in understated Grecian drapes. Michael George gave a comparatively dignified account of the hymn to Bacchus and did the Grecian shades proud with Timotheus' cries