Handel’s Partenope is one of those inexplicable rarities. A tuneful, light romance, it has everything that one could want from a Baroque opera – love, intrigue, cross-dressing… Back in Handel’s time, however, the opera claque had it in for the piece. “Senesino put me in a sweat in telling me that Parthenope was likely to be on the stage, for it is the very worst book (excepting one) that I ever read in my whole life,” sniped the rival Academy’s purse-lipped Italian agent Owen Swiny. Poppycock, said Edward J Dent who described it in 1959 as “perhaps the best libretto that Handel had ever set,”likening it to Shakespeare no less.
As always, the truth lies somewhere in-between. A tale of love, jealousy and betrayal, the plot revolves around the un-historical titular Queen of what would become Naples and her three suitors. Arsace, Prince of Corinth is the front runner, but when Rosmira, his former betrothed arrives disguised as a knight, it throws the field wide open. Arsace is forced to dissemble rather than admit his falsehood, and Partenope’s affections are diverted towards Armindo, the timid Prince of Rhodes. After Arsace forces Rosmira to reveal her identity by challenging her to a bare-chested duel (which she tastefully declines), both couples are united.
There’s a lot of debate amongst the suitors, and the repetitive complexities therein are the opera’s only weak link. Otherwise Partenope is top-notch Handel – unremittingly tuneful with an engaging story, plenty of character development and a plum role for the conflicted prince who goes from arrogant ne’er-do-well to heartbroken lover across three acts.
Erato has been fortunate that the excellent Riccardo Minasi has filled the gap in its stable left by the death of the late Alan Curtis. His crack period ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro has a real command of Handel’s fiery operatic style and Minasi is an immensely sure-footed musical dramatist.
French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky makes a fine Arsace, judging the character arc to perfection and singing with great depth of feeling in arias like Ch’ Io parta? Si crudele and Ma quai note di mesti lamenti. His co-star is Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin who sings incisively with just the right degree of hauteur, while conveying the Queen’s essentially giddily romantic nature explored in several minuet-inflected arias of which Qual farfalletta, representing her amorous emotions as a butterfly, is a fluttering delight.
Italian mezzo-soprano Teresa Iervolino is a rich-toned Rosmira, Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth sings with appealing clarity as Prince Armindo and John Mark Ainsley is luxury casting as the slightly surplus to requirements third suitor, Emilio. An unexpected treat.
Clive Paget spoke with Riccardo Minasi about Handel’s Partenope.