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Handel’s Partenope is still a relative rarity. What attracted you to it?
From my point of view, Partenope is one of the most interesting operas by Handel. Especially the fact that there are not so many borrowings like in other Handel compositions; it’s only new music; this is a demonstration of how much Handel was taking care of the composition. It’s an amazing piece. The plot is very interesting, the libretto is inspiring. It seems that Handel is playing a lot with it. I had worked previously with Karina Gauvin (Partenope); this is the first time with Philippe Jaroussky (Arsace), and we found each other quite easily. We have the same feeling about this music.
In its structure it has some curious musical forms – shorter arias, unusual duets etc. How innovative a work do you find it?
I don’t think the intention of Handel was to be so innovative in terms of musical form. He was using the libretto as an opportunity not to be a slave to the usual forms. Instead of an aria with recitative and da capo, he quite often uses arietta without da capo, and quite often using arietta without the da capo. Or for example he is using the recitativo accompagnato in a strange way, almost in a comic way when the pathos does not need something that huge like recitativo accompagnato. It is more about expressive intention than a need to be innovative in terms of form.
On the surface, the opera seems a light-hearted romance. Is that the case, or are their darker currents?
Partenope is totally not light. Of course, most of the librettos from the 18th century are quite simple in the eyes of 20th-century audiences. However, a libretto is absolutely an opportunity to show the entire range of human feelings. Partenope is full of moments like that: moments of crisis, moments of evolution for the characters. When for example Arsace is asking Ch´io parta? he is torn apart by doubt between loving Partenope or Rosmira; it’s quite a touching moment… The battle scenes are incredibly dramatic. During the recording sessions, what we tried to do was underline every element of the description of the affetti in the Italian tradition embraced by Handel. This is why leading up to the war scenes, I was really trying to feel the blood on the ground, and in the romantic moments I was trying to search for the sweetest sound possible and make the orchestra flourish.
For people unfamiliar with the work, which of Handel’s better-known operas would you compare it to?
There are moments of Partenope that are very close to Ariodante in terms of the opera’s philosophical current. The comical elements bring Partenope closer to Serse, even if in Partenope they are better developed, in my opinion. It is so impressive to see how much Handel is playing the part of an Italian, which brings both positive and negative aspects to this work, if you ask an Italian! He adds touches of tarantelle, pulcinella, and Commedia dell’Arte, but of course everything is viewed through a German perspective.
What are the highlights for you among the arias and in terms of the orchestrations?
The overture is brilliantly written, I have to say. The arias of Emilio are the most complex in terms of orchestration. Then there are two remarkable arias for Arsace, who is sung by Philippe Jaroussky in our recording: the lovely slow Ch’io parta is one of Handel’s greatest creations, and then the big aria full of rage, Furibondo spira il vento. I think what is making Partenope a special case in early 18th-century operas is that there is always a perfect balance between drama and farce or comedy.
Riccardo Minasi's Partenope on Erato is our Recording of the Month, April 2016.