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.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tale of two Partenope's - Part 1 - Rousset/Audi - Queen Elisabeth Hall - as beside mall at President & First Lady or LA Fitness

Handel’s Partenope at Queen Elisabeth Hall (production from Theater an der Wien) received a most provocative and well organized performance, if not vocally always the most suave. This is indeed a very interesting work, one somehow unjustly neglected over good number of years while other Handel operas started to get more frequently revived. It marked Handel’s second opera and first success during a five year stint called ‘Second Academy’ for which the Royal Opera authorities gave Handel and colleague Johan Heidegger free rein as to how to run business. Several years earlier, numerous Italian virtuosi had abandoned the islands to return home instead to work.

What has perhaps made Partenope somewhat less fully embraced than other Handel operas is an apparent elusiveness, withholding from being as fully engaged or believing in the full integrity of its characters, and yet as has been pointed out, this may be the best libretto Handel ever set to music. For those who read between the lines and dig it out to the right extent, it works quite well as a comedy. The heroism expected for two to three leading parts is understated; conventions of Italian opera, expected in London at the time to be treated with respect, got handled with degree of irreverence instead. As Winston Dean pointed out, the cross-dressing habits of one out of three leading characters here (constantly taking down the leading hero of this story a notch or two) and interaction that ensues from character on stage like this could have been very disconcerting to an audience of Protestant tastes. The da capo arias, two or three of which here succinctly allow the not so morally edifying hero of this tale, Arsace, to recognizably plumb the very depths of despair - such as happens in both Ariodante and other Handel opera seria - are on average shorter than previously has been the case.

Christine Schafer put to doubt notion that the title role of the queen, as described by Dean and others, is merely a simple, fun-loving character. Schafer, according to whatever agenda, brought out an inner agitation (already in the music) to this character not readily found in Rosemary Joshua’s conventional take on the part on disc (Chandos). In pushing for achieving desired dramatic effects, some obvious strain ensued. Her dramatic, also musical insights just almost made up for whatever lapses occurred vocally, lapses which just somewhat diminished as the evening wore on.

What pre-Cosi Fan Tutte aspects of this work there are, the more aesthetically pleasing way of singing this part does not always necessarily bring them out as well as did Schafer. Except for having to push it vocally, she certainly could be in a qualified way a natural at Fiordiligi. Partenope came across as though character similarly vulnerable. “Qual farfalletta”, as light-hearted and popular a piece from Partenope there is, had all the charm it needed. In spite of moments of strain, Schafer revealed, deftly pointed, a woman of experience, at both life and in affairs of the heart – with her being so ‘enlightened’ and free in taking so much on. Not too many pages apart from trio perhaps too short to get across all what Schafer reckoned it should – expressed moral outrage to extent did her cutting, incisive, syncopated “Spera e godi”. All three characters for the brief “Un cor infedele” were clearly differentiated, with support Rousset provided.

Christine Schafter started off tentatively with the bravura aria “L’Amor ed il destin” – tone hooty and insecurity at break and above. Schafer willed the cheerful, seductive aria “Sei mia gioia” with agile coloratura, making regal bearing of the queen palpable, but still only achieved good results with this. “Io ti levo” also sounded unsteady though with hearty D-Flat for Schafer to peal out right before the end of it. Schafer still spun out a beautifully connected line affirming the noble, imperious aspects of Partenope in this first of two very noble arias for her.

“Voglio amare” was perhaps most interesting of all, offering some of Schafer’s best singing of the evening. Christine Schafer made Partenope here, while singing a partly apologetic text, sound just reasonably tough - as to expose a character at pains to hide what vulnerabilities the queen indeed has. It could not have been easy for Schafer to have come up with all this – attention on how to sing Handel more than enough for many – but as determined as Schafer can be to make such happen, here it did. The brief arioso “Care mura”right before “Voglio amare” made evident what vocal warmth Schafer can still provide. Schafer’s ironic, mock-heroic take on the queen, including especially a trumpeted high A for her at the end of “Sei mia gioia” - was insightful, making for great diversion even in a work of more modest proportions such as this.

David Daniels was given the musically gratuitous, if dramatically thankless part of the shifty, weak-willed hero Arsace. Arsace’s opening aria with its stepwise continuo obbligato and haughtily charming “Sento amor” (the latter exposing hooty quality on top) came across as glibly insouciant, complacent - as though quite unaware of the traps being set for him. With urgent pacing from the pit, Daniels only almost lost focus during the almost endlessly spinning out vortices down from E(-Flat) of sextuplets in ‘Furibondo spira il vento" - stormy finale to Act Two. He still made an exciting challenge, showcase of it, of its furious emotions. The easier, somewhat inconsequential “Poterti dir vorrei” and closing bravura,“Fatto e amor”, with its taxing runs at vocal midrange, were cut.

With its proto-late-Mozartean qualities of extended appoggiaturas with beautifully prepared harmonic support, “Dimmi, pietoso ciel” opened what are three Lamentations of Arsace. Daniels sang this first one with beautiful legato in middle register, where much of it sits; nuance with such lines and fearlessness of being declamatory with several lines where called for (without pushing anything much) were notable. “Ch’io parta?” and “Ma quai note” were both big highlights of the evening. For Lawrence Zazzo, singing it at stately, regular pace with grief-stricken tone (on Curnyn set on Chandos) apparently was enough for both of these numbers. Daniels went the second mile, with seemingly limitless breath control, spinning out the line through the melismas of “Ch’io parta?” with genuine and expansive breadth of line and specific shape – all very deeply affecting. His trailing off the ends of phrases to a whisper, and with the discipline not to self-consciously dovetail doing so or layer on any other mannerism for “Ma quai note” was equally haunting. I have not ever heard better from David Daniels than his Arsace here.

Mezzo and pair of counter-tenors hardly seem distinguishable from each other on Chandos. Patricia Bardon here played Rosmira. Vocally, she suffered from some unsteadiness, but character and purpose in mind still had a little more than half of the clarity it needed. Her pointed ‘gelosia’s’ in “Furie son dell’alma mia” (a piece Charles Burney said he found rude and uncouth) - all of this aria practically choking with rage and risking considerable security vocally – made an impact. Rousset similarly took “Io seguo sol fiero” (‘horns aria’), finale to Act One ferociously, with Bardon reportedly tearing about the stage. Unsteadiness aside, Bardon’s voice had the greater flexibility and opportunity for color, subtle insinuation where necessary than Hillary Summers provided on disc. Bardon made Rosmira the more fully human and three-dimensional. Except for several weak low notes, Bardon started confident with “Se non ti sai spiegar” and found good introspection for pang of conscience in arioso form early on in Act 3.

Matthias Rexroth as the acutely indecisive Armindo provided deep sound in low register, prudently and approached high notes lightly, characterizing his part well, but lacked vocal distinction. He attended to overall shape to the line of “Nobil core”, with fine support from Rousset (eschewing the jerking about of its gigue rhythms) very well, making for both cheerful and successful close to his part – just having perhaps won in this staging two for the price of one, since here the queen’s captain has the hots for him as well. Florian Boesch was the light-voiced captain Ormonte - found to ham things up a bit during the finale to the opera. His only aria - with tune motivically similar to another aria nearby - helps make metaphor between lovemaking and campaigning in battle real.

Emilio is the part in Partenope to fill in whatever gaps in plot development whenever useful, and yet Handel fills out the part to extent this eventually becomes an interesting character in most respects. He is there to, alone among Partenope’s suitors, put up manly challenge to her disdain of his amorous advances and rival kingdom and to react with masculine despondency when he loses in battle. He is then later, in style of writing that previews Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutte, the person to salve Arsace’s wounds at not so much the hand as rhetoric of Rosmira. Kurt Streit had Christopher Rousset’s complete help in delineating all aspects and most of all dramatic functions of Emilio. Vocal delivery is less smooth from Streit than six years ago when he joined Curnyn for Chandos, but in place of singing just musically, a full character emerged here. The victorious bravura aria that Emilio closes with sits quite low, bound to cause Streit trouble this way; he did not find it insurmountable.

Leaps, inversions of octaves and sevenths in “Anch’io pugnar sapro”, Streit's opening aria, had from Rousset as well just the right ironic touch, as opposed to sounding pedantic. “Barbaro, fato si” was incisively defiant.“La speme ti consoli”, one of my favorite arias in Partenope, such as Mozart could have heard or musically had written for Ferrando, had the flexibility to make sense of and emotionally fill out Emilio’s lines with lovely nuance. It was such that it was credible that Arsace could have found some comfort or balm from this. Streit, still in fine voice, proved himself still up to this challenge that Handel wrote for virtuoso tenor Annibale Pio Fabri.

Speaking of irony, the new Pierre Audi production seemed to have come with it in spades. The infusion of so much vital passion in Christine Schafer’s interpretation made the staging quite a foil to her singing of the title role. One from the look of it could have expected instead the frivolity of valley girl casual glibness or indifference – greatest concern how well the personal trainer for daily jog and massage vis-à-vis what traffic issues may factor in, makes it to the gym on time for scheduled appointments. It is reassuring to know that we still have val girl types out there who know and how to express what is more important in life. Could there be a sufficiently quiet treadmill, to put onstage, especially to match Rousset’s tempos for “Furibondo” and ‘horns aria?’

None of this would have worked, had it not been for the supreme flexibility and wonderful working musical knowledge of Christopher Rousset, leading Les Talents Lyriques – optimum in ensemble, tuning, rhythms and the spirit of this music. I felt quite taken aback by the theatricality of Rousset’s musical insights, for being instrumentalist-turned-conductor he is. I feared a little toward start of this some choppiness, clipping, what have you; those fears greatly diminished quite rapidly as time passed by. There was no contentment here expressed with merely having proper baroque stylization of everything down without turning other elements of Partenope as well into music.

As an aside, it is perhaps churlish to pick on a studio recording, such as that of Christian Curnyn. I just could not help being reminded of Christopher Hogwood live six years ago in Houston for Ariodante - how very content he was to stop right where it is apparent that Curnyn has also. Moreover, Hogwood openly admitted his complete, highly ungrateful disdain for the fine David Alden production that came with him for Ariodante.

There was no grand-standing from Rousset either – other than quite humorously so right before the end of this opera – how he boldly jumped in to begin the forty second sinfonia to start the final scene. Even taking several daring tempos, Rousset was always very mindful of turning every phrase to good extent it should. His work with his singers was very thorough. For example, he aided Bardon on flexibly effective contrast of emphasis and color between insistent repeat musically of figuration, runs, in her last aria “Qual volto mi piace,” then curiously moved “Nobil core” (in similar gigue rhythm) for Armindo to several numbers later in the act. Several arias (elsewhere) got cut, and some recitative - only some of which not missed.

Handel, as our familiarity with Messiah can fool us, does not spell out how to use the virtuosity of his writing to flesh out character, even quirks thereof. He relied instead on his interpreters. In Rousset and also in this cast having made such complete ensemble effort, Handel had very close to what he wanted here. We can only hope for soon an upcoming dvd release of this new production, even as hard on the heels of one from Copenhagen - to be played semi-staged at the BBC Proms.

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