Handel’s Partenope is not, as one might mistakenly guess from the DVD cover, about the various unpleasant things that can happen when you wear armor without a lining. Rather, it’s about Queen Partenope of Partenope, which later became known as Naples. (It sounds strange, but you could do that kind of thing back then. “This is my city! I am named Gretchen. The city shall be called . . . Gretchen. Until such time as we see fit to rename it something else, like Heidelberg or whatever.”)
Partenope (Inger Dam-Jensen) is a very attractive prospect, what with having her own city and all, and she has several suitors: Arsace (Andreas Scholl), Armindo (Christophe Dumaux) and Emilio (Bo Kristian Jensen). She starts out by loving Arsace, but there is a bit of a problem with this, because Arsace is in a Ruggiero-type situation, but without the excuse of having been literally enchanted. His girlfriend Rosmira (Tuva Semmingsen) soon arrives in hot pursuit, disguised as a young man, Eurimine, complete with the inevitable mustache. (Though I have to say, the mustache technicians at the Danish Opera know their trade. They managed to find one that really suits Semmingsen.)
So, Arsace is wracked with guilt, the smart-alecky and slightly hotheaded Rosmira manages to get herself into and out of several duels in the course of doing her best to make Arsace feel like the real shit she thinks he is; Armindo has difficulty confessing his love for Partenope; Emilio initially swaggers in from Cumae with an army until it is pointed out to him that “hey, baby, I’ll buy you a drink if you let me show you my army” is the worst pickup line since Aeneas sat down next to Dido at a bar and said – actually no (this is me talking, not Aeneas), I do not think I can complete that particular joke; and Partenope – well, Partenope for the most part is having a hell of a good time. There are a few battles and the odd moment or two of introspection, but it all works out in the end. Arsace and Rosmira get back together, Partenope decides she loves Armindo after all, and Emilio and Partenope even shake hands and agree to be friends! (With armies!)
The production has the flavor of a high-class party that goes slightly wrong. The action takes place in a glitzy-looking room with a long banquet table. There are some walls that move around into various configurations; they are covered in vaguely Greek-looking mosaics ranging from abstract patterns to a tangle of fish and one octopus. Some scenes, especially later in the opera, take place on a kind of raised platform with an aperture behind it that opens out into the night sky. The men are wearing formal suits, Partenope sports a succession of evening gowns, and Emilio has what I think might be a navy uniform. It’s blue, anyhow. Some of the best parts are in the details – in the first act, as Partenope (the queen) sings of her joy at Partenope (the city’s) newly replastered walls – or was it newly built? either way, the walls have been improved – there is a cake, in the form of a walled city, brought in. The cake has a sparkler on each side, and on top there is a little fashion doll dressed as Partenope herself. It’s pretty great. (Armindo addresses it, sadly, later on, during one of his arias.) And when the Partenopeians (?) engage in a brief battle with the men from Cumae, the battle is a game of musical chairs which turns into a very tense session of rock-paper-scissors (they’re all wearing gloves, which somehow ups the ante; I’m not sure why) which then turns into what appears to be a European version of leapfrog.
All this might sound as if the production treats the opera as all froth and no substance. But it doesn’t.
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