The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

BBC Proms 2009: Prom 4 - Tale of two Partenope's - CO Copenhagen/Mortensen

BBC Prom 4 - Handel: Partenope. Inge Dam-Jensen, Andreas Scholl, Tuva Semmingsen, Christophe Dumaux, Bo Kristian Jensen, Palle Knudsen, Concerto Copenhagen, Lars Ulrik Mortensen - Royal Albert Hall - July 19, 2009 (from Negrin production at Royal Danish Opera).

From context of what is apparently a somewhat abstract production of Handel’s Partenope has come for opening week of the BBC Proms this year a semi-staged reproduction of the same. Out of three times I have now heard Partenope, including a highly entertaining, provocative one led by Christopher Rousset from Queen Elisabeth Hall - production from Theater an der Wien - and the studio bound Chandos recording, this Royal Danish Opera visit has been the most effective.

In terms of edition used, pretty much in that regard alone (plus casting Kurt Streit in best voice as Emilio), the Chandos has still been the best – toward what satisfies composer’s intentions this way. Several arias were cut from both performances in London, including from Royal Danish Opera, the introduction aria “Se non ti sai spiegar” for Rosmira that makes a case for how she becomes convincing in presenting herself to others. “Sei mia gioia” for Partenope - the first time we musically get the sensuous side of the queen - and closing arias for both Arsace and Partenope were cut. The latter two of these got cut at Queen Elisabeth Hall as well. Curiously, Emilio’s speciously triumphant “La Gloria in nobil alma” got moved to the very start of Act 3 and sung by Ormonte instead. Replacing “Scherza, si” in the final scene was grafted in here an extended duet from another Handel opera – emphasis on ‘extended’ – for Partenope and Armindo. Given the nature of its text, it might have been more convincing to partner queen with Arsace instead.

Inge Dam-Jensen cut an imposing figure vocally and expressively as Partenope. Her voice, heavy in places, works less naturally for her in negotiating trills and the florid coloratura in her part. There was indeed some smudging here intermitently; high notes were often tense or strained. Her command of line though, as beautifully supported orchestrally at all times, was secure, starting from her first arioso and somewhat militant opening aria. In especially cutting out “Sei mia gioia” (type of aria that Mozart did not quite so overtly give Fiordiligi), the vanity of the queen came across over the air as understated, along with some of her allure.

Dam Jensen gave Partenope, the most confident - more so than of any of the men - of commanding an army the interpretation of “Io ti levo” to match such conception. It at least starting it kept such character to the fore more so than what amorous metaphor it can make out of entering combat. Dam-Jensen’s infusion of smoother legato as the aria progresses let in enough of the other side of the queen this piece presents - not for fear of it otherwise having bordered on going lopsided, two-dimensional on us. “Spera e godi” and “Un cor infedele” incisively conveyed moral indignation, without as with Christine Schafer for Rousset, being treated as ‘Come scoglio’ often is - with postmodernist irony. No doubt, the cleverness of it all - the take that Schafer gave it - was undeniable.

“Care mura”, in the absolutely complete shaping of this only almost two minute arioso, with separations in the line beautifully demarcated also by Mortensen and internal contrasts beautifully plumbed this way, confirmed that - if not textually complete - we were getting indeed otherwise a musically and psychologically (near-)complete portrayal of Partenope. Infusion of a degree of introspection for the da capo of both “Voglio amare” and “Qual farfalletta” - Dam-Jensen’s tone light for the former but heavier for opening of the latter – did verge on self-conscious, but such did not excessively detract from either impetus behind either aria or enjoyment thereof.

In what turned out here most convincingly a dramma giocoso for aristrocrats, Andreas Scholl’s air as Arsace was the most convincingly elite of three singers heard in this part; he was vocally the most even as well. He may not have plumbed the depths as much or with as much shading in “Ch’io la porta” in Act 3 as David Daniels did for Rousset. In so precise a manner, if a little too strict on avoiding use of vibrato here as he approached it, argument can be made for maintaining thus the simplicity of the line and expressive gesture as Scholl went about it. He very pleasingly framed the naivete or narcissism of Arsace with appropriately and flexibly stately presence and patrician air in his first two arias. Mortensen, instead of gilding or extra-vivifying the violins’ upward five note run-extensions, allowed Scholl more space than Rousset did Daniels to find the lack of masculinity about Arsace in his voice, interpretation of “Sento, amor” - wisely so as very colorful Daniels and Rousset together made this aria themselves.

Scholl and Mortensen beautifully observed appoggiaturi within the line for Arsace’s first lament, “Dimmi, pietoso” beautifully; Scholl especially uncovered its internal contrasts with great introspection and poise. With equal noble restraint and beautiful theorbo-enhanced accompaniment from Concerto Copenhagen, “Ma quai note” also became a highlight. Scholl, though finding the frequent excursions into the lower middle register for him a bit tricky, negotiated such into his furioso aria, “Furibondo” with the insight that there is more complexity to such a piece than just having to negotiate otherwise seemingly endless sequences of sextuplets, as paralleled by the strings. It was also only here that perhaps and with a little more courage a more direct musical and dramatic approach might be less self-conscious. Even through so much careful enveloping of what went on, the full thrust of Arsace’s plight and suffering was evident throughout.

Hardly any better than Scholl - given too that his assignment here was less demanding - was the Armindo of the other counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux. His voice has a fuller quality to it than does Scholl's, thus mildly more flexible to make more coloured nuance with it. Dumaux, wise to his task - more decisively than the character he plays - always held such in check, even during long extended duet from Sosarme he joined in with Dam-Jensen for this. With including this duet, Armindo practically became as important a character as any of the three leads. His voice, production thereof definitely sounded the most confident, even among three counter-tenors I have yet heard sing Armindo.

Dumaux characterized ‘Voglio dire” without having to rely upon or use vocal weakness to get Armindo's indecisiveness across, but on music and words alone - with so many of its pauses for simple turns in lower register. One then had no doubt that it was Handel’s music, not vocal issues. “Non chiedo, o luci vaghe” which so ingenuously almost imperceptibly started as growing out from recitative before was the height, musically and textually, of psychological subtlety. With equal vocal security and charm, Dumaux skipped lightly through “Nobil core”, which in this instance did not turn out being his final number in this.

Palle Knudsen, with two arias instead of one, made a stalwart, vocally sturdy Ormonte, baritonal in sound like Boesch for Rousset, but with better vocal security and depth. Bo Kirstian Jensen, pleasant in timbre, with his number of arias cut down from four to three, lacked vocal steadiness or anchor intonation wise for some of Emilio. He still managed to characterize the part well, greatly assisted by Mortensen in giving “Barbaro fato, si” shape of unusually high quality.

Saving the best for last from among an already strong cast was the Rosmira of Tuva Semmingsen. This is a good, sturdy voice without more than moderate variety of color at her disposal, but with great evenness covering a large range. The libretto for Handel’s Partenope is unusually strong, but should there be any singer who can make all so clearly vivid out of Handel recitative text within arias along with it, it is Semmingsen. She made a most subtle and pernicious villain of Rosmira, without failing to share with us this character's humanity - for character that does indeed deserve to get even. Under such circumstances, should they be real life, I most certainly would not want to be the Arsace - even with Semmingsen later on confiding Rosmira’s pangs of conscience. Could have Shakespeare made Iago a woman? If so, he might have sought out Tuva Semmingsen.

“Un altra volta ancora”, with incisive separations in phrasing made by Mortensen and his strings, sounded as far from being what one might conjecture to be Vivaldi concerto transcription writing as one will ever find for this aria. The ‘gelosia’s’ and ‘furore’s’ in “Furie son bell’alma mia” cut to the very core of one’s being to hear them, with varying inflection as to how each of them fits into each phrase. Even Rosmira's lines in “Un cor infedele” had one hanging on them so much, it made the piece seem much more complete, even longer than at being so brief, it really is. Even in the ‘horns’ aria that closes Act One - with very forthright valveless playing from ranks of Concerto Copenhagen - Semmingsen made one take notice, amidst so many turns and inversions, of what text lies beneath the text. This was as subtle and dangerous a Rosmira, villain as any Arsace will ever face.

Stitching such a complex web of plot together, with so much musical subtlety from a fine cast alone was Lars Ulrik Mortensen, the other hero of this performance. “Per le porte del suo tormento” from Sosarme was a uniquely beautiful event - so evenly and sensitively sung by Dam-Jensen and Dumaux. However, I doubt the philological correctness of this decision. Without seeing the Negrin production, the dramatic impetus for having done so remains unclear.

The text has to do with Elmira tending to the wounds of the Median (Medo-Persian) king Sosarme (though Handel's original source had action take place in or near Portugal). It might, especially after a Semmingsen Rosmira has done all her damage, better fit Partenope and Arsace instead of queen and Armindo. It even sounded mildly ironic to include it, in that here was a cast, with so much excellent support, making something very complete of the frequently to almost always shorter da capo arias in this opera than show up in more full-fledged opera seria of Handel. At a little over nine minutes, this was the one number in Partenope lasting at all over seven minutes - as situated in the usually brief final scene of the opera. In perhaps anticipation of the new music, there was for good stretch of Act Three some lapse in vitality overall; even so, the quality of music-making and acting remained very high.

Mortensen has a knack, unusual for ‘period’ but without unduly romanticizing anything he does, for finding the internal shape to phrase structure in da capo arias and of leading his singers right into what he does. He does so not to show off the beauty of his craft, but towards bringing out the very best, helping flesh out the most character his singers and other participants can offer. He would even employ a little phrasing from behind to so ingenuously delineate what he needed for several arias. Accuracy of intonation and ensemble of Concerto Copenhagen – other than for perhaps openly rowdy concertato playing in the ‘horns’ aria – was spot on the entire way. As for the horns, attempting to make cuckold out of the Rosmira, how so when Tuva Semmingsen? Fat chance! The rhythmic definition and ensemble fullness for the overture that opened Partenope had one anticipate well even Mortensen's firm, eloquent, never glutinous accompaniment to ”Ma, quai note.”

Play with direct imitation (and other device), such as between separated phrasing in violins for the queen’s “Qual farfalletta” always strongly brought out character. Support from an undercurrent of gently firm pulsation in “Voglio amare”, again for the queen, was most insightful and complete – even as antithetical in a way to how the also fine Christopher Rousset conducted it for Schafer. Rubato for all of this and more was at Mortensen’s most supple and flexible command. Laughter from the hall at certain amount of antics occurring onstage never sounded achieved as anything cheap, but in harmony with all that transpired both musically and dramatically.

So much that Mortensen does matches up ‘period’ with always genuinely expressed Romantic values, as from a generation or two past, without denying the virtues of presenting Handel’s music at high level of purity of conception - and of grace. In addition to this joining their Giulio Cesare on the dvd market, there will have to be more – hopefully an Alcina in the not too distant future.

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