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Partenope review at Coliseum, London – ‘combining vivacity with delicacy’

Sarah Tynan in ENO's Partenope at the Coliseum. Photo: Donald Cooper Sarah Tynan in ENO's Partenope at the Coliseum. Photo: Donald Cooper
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Originally seen in 2008, Christopher Alden’s staging won the Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production the following year, and in its first revival it provides a timely reminder of ENO’s strengths in successfully casting and staging Handel’s operas.

The rare Partenope is an unusual example – essentially a comic work rather than the heroic type of opera seria (serious opera) that the composer regularly wrote for early 18th-century London audiences.

The invented plot centres on the legendary siren who gave her name to Naples – in ancient times called Partenope in her honour – but here she’s the city’s Queen, surrounded by three suitors. One of them, Arsace, is torn between Partenope and his former fiancee, Rosmira, who has come to check out the lie of the land disguised as the soldier Eurimene. Complex emotional entanglements provide the motivation for the innumerable arias that make up the work’s musical fabric.

Alden and his design team transfer the action, however, to a Parisian salon in the 1920s, when the Surrealists were all the rage: Emilio, another one of Partenope’s suitors, is specifically got up as artist-photographer Man Ray.

It all makes for a visually chic show, perfectly complemented by Amanda Holden’s witty translation, even if the switch of location and period scarcely feels an inevitable one.

What gives the evening consistency are the cast’s excellent vocal skills, which enable them to tackle Handel’s virtuosic writing with aplomb. Sarah Tynan is a commanding Partenope, wooed by Rupert Charlesworth’s high-energy Emilio, Patricia Bardon’s grand-scale Arsace, and James Laing’s elegant Armindo. Matthew Durkan is resolute as Partenope’s loyal supporter, Ormonte, and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis seizes all opportunities with her powerfully sung Rosmira.

Taking charge in the pit, meanwhile, conductor Christian Curnyn superintends a performance combining vivacity with delicacy.

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Christopher Alden’s production remains elegantly witty, with virtuoso singing from the entire cast