Saturday, 3 January 2009


12/11/08, ENO
3 hrs incl 2 x intervals. Robert Fox, Peter Taylor and Stephen Thingummy who used to be the controller of editorial policy in the Upper Circle audience. Why this affinity between Handel and middle-aged male employees of the BBC?

(Popbitch, the following week: "David Attenborough spotted nodded-off at Handel's opera Partenope, at the Coliseum." Bet he wasn't in the Upper Circle.)

A Handel comedy with a plot even more implausible and convoluted than usual. The princess Partenope (Rosemary Joshua, soprano, a bit shrill but lots of very showy arias) is loved by Armindo (A1, counter-tenor, with unexpected vocal power and expressiveness) but loves Arsace (A2, another soprano) who used to be in love with Rosmira (Patricia Bardon, mezzo, marvellous – you could hear every word). R has returned, disguised as a man, reveals herself to A2 but swears him/her to secrecy. Much confusion and unhappiness ensue. There’s also a bass in a dodgy red beard and the tenor John-Mark Ainsley camping it up as an invading prince who also fancies Partenope and must be defeated in battle. The usual succession of de capo arias (except for one, late on, which doesn’t repeat – unexpected and unsettling). We applauded virtually every aria, deservedly.

The directorial masterstroke was to relocate the whole thing to the 1930s and the Paris of the surrealists. The “battle” becomes a series of encounters during a party. The defeated prince is incarcerated in the loo. When A2 sings “How long must this go on, how long?” he/she sits unravelling a roll of lavatory paper. Later the door opens to reveal him/her almost completely buried in the stuff. P is the party hostess, dressed in a succession of elegant little numbers; the men (or “men”) all wear baggy 1930s suits, helpfully colour-coded. Most problematic, but most entertainingly, the invading prince is an Andre Breton/Man Ray character, with electric hair and a splendid camera-plus-flash-gun, who spends much of the last act up a ladder, pinning photographic prints on the wall: they gradually resolve themselves into a giant still of a nude woman’s torso (a genuine Man Ray). There was a very silly moment when a duel is about to be fought and the bass with the bushy red beard comes on in a lurid pink tutu. Earlier, R undresses to prove her gender to the Ainsley character. She is wearing sock suspenders. (She opens her shirt to prove she’s a woman, but Ms Bardon modestly kept her back to us). At the very end R appears dressed as a woman in flapper dress and far too much make-up: she looked much prettier as a man, notwithstanding a pair of substantial moustaches.

Beneath the silliness and the cross-dressing you might find a serious point about the delusions and illusions of love, not to mention its fickleness. Or you might not. At the end of this “comedy”, A2 is obliged to shack up with R, who apparently accepts the outcome joyfully despite his/her earlier betrayal; P, having lost A2 (the one she really fancies) is obliged to accept the drippy A1, in what looks like the beginning of a distinctly sado-masochistic relationship. Scarcely a promising start to a life of married bliss in either case. Surprisingly, some of the music is downright touching. Shivers down the spine more than once.

No comments:

Post a Comment