Monday 20 July 2009

Prom 4

Last night (Sunday 19th July), the Danish Opera brought their production of Handel's Partenope. The cast were mainly Danish, spiced by two foreign counter-tenors (Andreas Scholl and Christoph Dumaux as Arsace and Armindo respectively), and accompanied by the period instrument group Concerto Copenhagen, conducted from the harpsichord by Lars Ulrik Mortensen. The only thing that they did not bring with them from Copenhagen was the production, this was a concert performance, albeit a rather lively one. As the original production was a modern dress one, it might be that we got the better deal.

Playing baroque music in the Albert Hall is tricky and requires special handling, playing baroque opera seria even more so. Many British conductors have had experienced the hall and most are able to make the necessary corrections so that the music sounds as good as it is able. But quite often, when listening to the Proms, you get the impression that the listeners to BBC Radio 3 rather get the better deal.

No-one seems to have explained to Lars Ulrik Mortensen that playing the Albert Hall is not like playing an ordinary venue. He launched into an account of the overture which went at a cracking pace. For the whole evening his tempi were on the brisk side and the whole opera finished some 20 minutes early. As far as the overture was concerned, all we could do was admire the brilliance of the playing of Concerto Cophenhagen. But when Inger Dam-Jensen launched into Partenope's first aria, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. Dam-Jensen duly sparkled and twinkled as Partenope and I think that she has a fine technique. But given at such a rapid speed, her fast passage-work barely registered.

This was a problem for the whole evening. As the opera progressed, the cast seemed to more of a hang of the tricky acoustic and by the end they had succeeded in involving us in the performance. But much went by the way-side, evaporating into the aether before it reached us. Only Andreas Scholl managed to make each of his arias tell, and that is mainly because Arsace is such a drip that Handel gives him a succession of slow-ish arias. In his really fast number, even Scholl could not make his passage-work really tell, the faster notes did not make it past the heads of the promenaders.

This was a shame, because there was much to enjoy in the production. As I have said, Dam-Jensen was a sparkling Partenope. She is more soubrette, than diva (in Ariodante she would make a better Dalinda than Ginevra) but summoned up sufficient diva-ishness for the role, though a slightly bigger more dramatic voice would have been equally welcome. She charmed as well and made you understand why the men in the cast all find her so fascinating - Partenope is seriously hampered if the leading lady is not seriously sexy.

Though not strictly a production and done on the book, the cast all emoted and reacted to each other. This was useful as it helped to bring out the comedy. In this work, the comedy is all in the situation. Handel's lighter pieces are difficult to bring off properly as it is all too easy to send things up good and proper. Here the cast made the most of the rather ludicrous plot, all engendered because Arsace has run off to pursue Partenope whilst still engaged to Rosmira (Tuva Semmingsen), who in turn pursues and torments him whilst disguised as a man. Arsace's problems occur because he is an honorable man, except when it comes to love. So he honours a promise to Rosmira not to give her away, even though this would get him out of his problems. So the engine of the comedy becomes the problems that occur.

The cast made the most of the dialogues of confusion, whilst making sure that we sympathised with the characters; we were never in doubt that the emotion was real.

For Handel's audience, there would have been other aspects to the comedy, the sex role thing. The heroine, a woman, becomes general of her own army. One leading man (Arsace) was played by a castrato, the other leading man (Armindo) was played by a woman with another woman playing a female character (Rosmira) who spends most of the opera dressed as a man! We lost some of this. Scholl is a counter-tenor rather than a sexually challenged castrato and Armindo was played by another counter-tenor rather than a woman, which was a shame.

Scholl was his usual wonderful self, perhaps sending up his generally po-faced persona a little as an Arsace who just can't make up his mind and wants to have his cake and eat it. It helps that he can spin the most wonderful line, and make it heard. Christoph Dumaux seems to have a higher, slightly sharper edged line, but is still supple and has a rather more feminine quality to his voice than Scholl. This helped with the character who is almost as much of a drip as Arsace, and it takes until the middle of Act 2 before he dares tell Partenope that he loves her!

Her third lover, the war-like Emilio, was tenor Bo Kristian Jensen. Jensen sang the role finely, though he rather underprojected the more war-like bits. I had a suspicion that the role lay a little low for Jensen's high lyric voice. At ENO, John Mark Ainsley gave us a slightly more dramatic account of the role.

Tuva Semmingsen was musical but rather light voiced as Rosmira. The role is almost as big as Partenope's and she has some strong, passionate arias. Merighi, the original Rosmira, was a fine actress who specialised in men. As Handel already had a woman specialising in trouser roles, he seems to have written the plum part of Rosmira as a consolation prize for Merighi, something for her to get her teeth into.

Semmingsen is a fine Handelian, but you never felt she was going to split blood. She was appealing rather than appalling, and Rosmira must appall at times. Only at the end, when Arsace says they must duel bare-chested, does she finally collapse.

Palle Knudsen made a strong Ormonte.

At the end, instead of giving us Partenope's final aria as written by Handel, we got a duet for Partenope and Armindo (from Sosarme I think). This was lovely, and beautifully performed, but wasn't what Handel wrote and the programme book didn't even tell us of the change.

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