George Frideric Handel
English National Opera
London Coliseum

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In love, as on the battlefield, you have to take your chance. Handel’s bitter, witty and ironic comedy of sexual intrigue was premiered in London at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket in 1730. It has rarely been seen in England since, so the ENO revival is something of a treat.

Partenope (which means virgin in Greek) is the mythical foundress of the city of Naples. She is also famous as one of the Sirens, who lured young sailors to their death.

Handel’s opera is a battlefield of erotic desire, jealousy and rage. Director Christopher Alden – taking his inspiration from the Surrealists – has given the opera a 1920’s Paris Art Deco setting, all very chic in white with a curving staircase.

The characters smoke cigarettes and pipes. They drink cocktails, play cards and are liable – in Amanda Holden’s translation at least – to swear: “Oh, shit!”

Partenope is dressed to look like 1920’s society hostess Nancy Cunard. Rosemary Joshua, wearing lots and lots of bracelets, indeed looks as if she is ready to be photographed by Man Ray.

Beautifully costumed by Jan Morrell, she also looks great when she dons top hat and tails and looks like Marlene Dietrich. Vocally, Joshua dazzles with her virtuosity.

John Mark Ainsley plays the cynical Emilio as if Emilio were Man Ray and camps around with his camera and even takes a photograph of the theatre.

Christine Rice, Iestyn Davies and Patricia Bardon are all in splendid voice. James Gower, who spends much of the time on the side lines and often with his back to the audience, is very funny in his role of unhappy lover. The singers are excellent actors and the ladies are surprisingly convincing as males.

The libretto is not that easy to follow and it isn’t made any the easier for the updating. The Man Ray transformation, clever though it may be, doesn’t really work. But not to worry, Alden’s stylish production is always highly entertaining and full of witty touches. There is, admittedly, a dreadfully unfunny stuck-in-the-lavatory joke, which is cheap and should be cut.

Handel goes on for nearly four hours but it doesn’t feel like anything like four hours because the sound, on stage and in the pit, is absolutely ravishing. The conductor is Christian Curnyn. ENO has a BIG hit. They usually do with Handel.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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