Boston Baroque opens season enjoyably with Handel’s “Partenope”

October 20, 2012 at 1:48 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Amanda Forsythe stars in the title role of Handel's "Partenope" with Boston Baroque.

Boston Baroque opened its season Friday night at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall with a little-known but delightful Handel opera.
Partenope, premiered in London in 1730, is unusual among Handel’s numerous stage works. It is a comic opera based on a 1699 libretto by Silvio Stampiglia that tells the story of criss-cross lovers in a style similar to, but simpler than, Beaumarchais’s late-eighteenth-century Figaro plays. The drama sometimes resembled a soap opera, at others a situation comedy. Partenope, queen of Naples, finds herself the object of desire from three men: the Corinthian Prince Arsace; Armindo, Prince of Rhodes; and Prince Emilio of Cumae.
The queen initially fancies Arsace, and for half of the drama she is unaware that he jilted his betrothed, Princess Rosmira, in his home kingdom. Posing as the gentlemen Eurimene, Rosmira pursues Arsace out of mixed desires to win back his love and for revenge. The insecure Armindo loves the queen, though he struggles over the course of the opera to express his feelings to her. Emilio, engaged in a war with Partenope, declares his love for her. He reignites the fight, however, when she rejects him. Meanwhile, the fickle Partenope enjoys the attention from so many men.
But the style of drama is the only difference. The extended melismatic lines and colorful orchestral score, some of which reappear in the arias and choruses of Messiah and Israel in Egypt, are omnipresent.
Convention aside, Partenope is an aria-lovers dream, chock full of acrobatic yet highly expressive vocal lines.
The performance from Boston Baroque and the youthful cast was certainly entertaining, consisting of memorable acting and comedic elements that transplanted Handel’s work into the present day. Quite a few recitatives served as punchlines, and the gags—Partenope, while day-dreaming about which man she loves, pulls an extraordinarily long rope of pearls out of Armindo’s pants—caused the audience to roar with laughter, sometimes rendering the music inaudible.
The simple costumes—coats and ties for the male roles (including Rosmira/ Eurimene), silk dresses and sweater-and-skirt combo for Partenope—made the characters appear like present-day business associates, a nod, perhaps, to the aristocracy of today. Props and sets were minimal, but effective.
The quality singing Friday night did the rest. The evening belonged to Amanda Forsythe, who performed the title role. Boston audiences will remember her singing from Boston Baroque’s critically-acclaimed performance and recording of Haydn’s Creation last year and, more recently, the Handel and Haydn Society soirée at Sanders Theatre this past March. As Partenope, Forsythe’s delicate, athletic voice soared above the music, and she handled the winding coloratura lines with ease and grace.

Owen Willetts, with his dark eyes and warm countertenor voice, was impressive in the role of the love-torn Arsace. David Trudgen, in his lighter countertenor timbre, played the insecure Armindo to good effect. Kirsten Sollek possesses a velvety contralto voice, which was well-fitted for the jealous Rosmira/ Eurimene. Baritone Andrew Garland served as a commanding Ormonte, the queen’s advisor.
Tenor Aaron Sheehan played a convincing Emilio. The singer beautifully conveyed the character’s despair after his capture in Act 2 but several times Sheehan’s voice lost its power in the lower range.
Conductor Martin Pearlman held tight reign on the finely tuned orchestra of period instruments, keeping the music and the singers in time and within appropriate tempos (though the lower strings and harpsichord seemed to rush ahead of Pearlman’s beat at times). The  programmatic battle music of Act 2 brought trumpeter Robinson Pyle and percussionist John Grimes, playing timpani and side drum, into the orchestra. In particular, Pyle’s carefully controlled trumpet calls blended gracefully into the orchestral texture.
The horns occasionally drowned out Sollek’s voice during her final aria of Act 1. Some of the balance problems could have resulted from the stage directions, which, though generally effective for relaying the story, resulted in Sollek standing directly behind the small brass section where she could not compete with the volume.
But despite the kinks, Boston Baroque’s production made for an enjoyable and enlightening evening of Handel and a fine start to its season.
Partenope will be repeated 7:30 p.m Saturday night.

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