Saturday 25 May 2019

A Victorian 'Love Island' - Handel's Partenope from Hampstead Garden Opera

Handel: Partenope  - James Rhoads, Will Pate, Francis Gush, Jennifer Begley - Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Handel: Partenope  - James Rhoads, Will Pate, Francis Gush, Jennifer Begley
Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Handel Partenope; Jennifer Begley, Francis Gush, Alexander Pullinger, Anne-Sofie Soby Jensen, dir: Ashley Pearson, cond: Bertie Baigent; Hampstead Garden Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019
Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)

A lively and approachable account of one of Handel's lighter serious operas

Handel: Partenope  - Jennifer Begley, Alexander Pullinger - Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Handel: Partenope  - Jennifer Begley, Alexander Pullinger
Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Partenope is one of Handel's lighter operas, not comic as such but its satirical edge, relative compactness and lovely arias mean that the piece has been popular with opera companies. It is, however, not without its problems. For a start, what comedy there is arises from the mismatch of the expectations of the way characters in opera seria should act, but here don't. Which means that to enjoy the work in its original form, you need an appreciation of opera seria itself. Add to this, the setting requires the second Act to open with a battle, thus giving the modern director the problem of quite how seriously to take the plot. Recent productions have tended to replace the battle with other less serious hi-jinks, Christopher Alden's production for English National Opera set the piece firmly within 1920s artistic society, for instance [see my review].

However, with its relatively compact arias, imaginative use of ensembles (quite rare in Handel) and relatively straightforward plot, the opera makes a very sympathetic approach to Handel opera for non-specialist companies.

Hampstead Garden Opera's Spring 2019 production was thus Handel's Partenope presented at Jackson's Lane Art Centre in Highgate in a production directed by Ashley Pearson with designs by Laura Fontana and lighting by Daniel Carter-Brennan. The production was double cast with young singers, still at college or recently graduated, rather than Handel specialists, and we saw Jennifer Begley as Partenope, Francis Gush as Arsace, Alexander Pullinger as Armindo, Anne-Sofie Soby Jensen as Rosmira (disguised as Eurimene for most of the opera), James Rhoads as Emilio and Will Pate as Ormonte. Bertie Baigent directed the orchestra from the harpsichord.

The theatre at Jackson's Lane Arts Centre is in part of the old church complex, what must have been a huge hall, the raked audience looked on a relatively substantial stage but there was no pit, instead the orchestra was above and behind the singers, stretched out in a thin double line. It was a small ensemble with six strings and two harpsichords. Logistics were efficiently done via via screens, but I thought it a shame that the singers were not able to react directly to Bertie Baigent's expressive direction.

Ashley Pearson and Laura Fontana's solution to Partenope's problems was to set the piece at the Victorian seaside. Fontana's fixed set was a row of beach huts and the cast were all in Victorian bathing costumes. This was an intriguing and economic solution, after all the opera is about love and relationships rather than dynastic action. But the beach setting, with the uniform costumes, rather took everyone out of context and it was difficult to realise who these people were. Why was Partenope so deferred to? If the comedy comes from the leading man behaving inappropriately, then it is important for us to understand his position in the hierarchy. Instead we got a series of beach-side hi-jinks, a sort of Victorian Love Island.

And in an opera which is very much concerned with the gap between surface and content, it seemed unfortunate to put all the men in extremely unflattering all-in-one bathing costumes, thus essentially making them all look ridiculous.

The battle which opens Act Two (which here concluded part one of the evening) was a series of beach games, which emphasised the production's element of hi-jinks. And Pearson's general approach to the opera was to keep things moving on stage, only one or two of the more serious arias allowed the soloist to play alone on the stage.

The result was lively and energetic, and enabled the young singers to give us an engaging performance which achieved its aim of entertaining the audience. This was clearly a popular show, and made Handel opera highly approachable. But I felt some of the subtlety of the opera was lost, and by the end of the piece we had no clearer idea of who the characters were than we had had at the beginning.

Handel: Partenope  - James Rhoads, Will Pate, Alexander Pullinger - Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Handel: Partenope  - James Rhoads, Will Pate, Alexander Pullinger
Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Jennifer Begley made a strong and confident Partenope, ruling with clear sense of her right to do so whatever the context. We never really learned much about this Partenope, she seemed content to bask in the love and admiration of her admirers. Begley has a firm, vibrant voice and certainly commanded in the complex Handelian lines, though sometimes perhaps pushed a little too hard.

Frances Gush made a highly personable Arsace, singing with a lovely soft-grained voice and bringing a nice concentration to Arsace's more serious arias. Gush made Arsace approachable yet entirely untrustworthy as he seemed incapable of understanding it was not OK to string two women along simultaneously.

Luckly Annne-Sofie Soby Jensen's Rosmira looked entirely capable of keeping him in order. First seen in Victorian day clothes, Jensen created perhaps the most rounded character on stage but then Rosmira is an interestingly complex heroine. Here she was not quite as spike as sometimes, but always capable, until the ending with its requirement the Eurimene fight bare chested!

Alexander Pullinger played Armindo very much as a comic character. Pullinger has a highly malleable face, and his facial expressions were key to this naive and entertaining interpretation. But given the quality of Pullinger's musical performance, I would have liked a little more complexity and light and shade in the depiction of the character.

James Rhoads was a Emilio, ruler of the neighbouring state who challenges Partenope with his army. It was here that the production fell down, as it rather left Emilio hanging around simply as another admirer of Partenope rather than a genuine rival. The element of danger was lost. Rhoads sang with an attractive lyric tenor and a slightly naive stage presence, though some of the more complex fioriture was a bit smudgy.

Will Pate brought a strong stage presence to the rather smaller role of Ormonte. He sang stylishly, but it was his expressive face, particularly the roll of the eyes, which we noticed.

Playing Handel with such a small band, especially one strung out in a line, is a challenge, but one which Bertie Baigent and his ensemble rose to admirably, giving us some finely lithe moments and at its best I loved the pungent oboe-led sound of the ensemble. As I said, it was a shame that the cast were not able to react to Baigent's direction directly, and I feel that having the ensemble on stage and part of the action (as in the London Handel Festival/Royal Opera House's recent Berenice [see my review]) is an excellent option.

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