The Organ

Verdi: Aida/Handel: Partenope

Verdi: Aida/Handel: Partenope
ENO October 22nd and 24th

Partenope may not be widely known amongst Handel's operas but Christopher Alden's witty and highly focussed new production makes an excellent case for it becoming a regular part of the revived canon. Unlike more highly charged pieces, this comedy lends itself to imaginative treatment and this it certainly gets with a whole scale move into the early 1920s, seeing the action through the eyes of the surrealists and in particular Man Ray. What could so easily deteriorate into a gimmick is saved by the secure characterisation and the sense of close relationships between the soloists. Added to this the singing is of an impeccably high quality throughout. The story would take too long to rehearse here – and anyway can be looked up easily on the net – but it is the swiftly changing relationships which interest Handel and which drive the score. Rosemary Joshua is in complete control as Partenope, throwing off the coloratura as if it comes with the job and adding genuine humour to the action. As her various suitors Christine Rice and Iestyn Davies survive the complexities of cross-dressing to maintain both their identify and individuality. Patricia Bardon, the only actual other female, is allowed to let her femininity ooze through to stunning effect while James Gower's bearded Ormonte spends much of his time on the alcoholic fringes of the group. John Mark Ainsley is the true outside as Emilio, here seen as Man Ray, both directing the action but at the same time its victim. Played within Andrew Lieverman's lavish white settings and with the band lovingly crafted under the direction of Christian Curnyn I hope we will see this production again.

I wish I could say the same for the current ENO production for Aida which I saw two days earlier. Musically it is very secure and if this was a concert performance it would be excellent. But it is not a concert, this is supposed to be drama. It is a pity Jo Davies had not taken a leaf out of Christopher Alden's book and realised that characters need to be give some sense of reality. For too much of this Aida soloists are allowed to wander about with no sense of purpose other than to sing. Worse still, the chorus during the triumph scene make no reactions whatsoever to events unfolding before them, be it dancers, slaves or elephants. As a consequence we are left unmoved by events. Thankfully individual performances are strong with Matthew Best a striking Ramphis and the veteran Gwynne Howell in real command as Pharaoh. Claire Rutter and John Hudson are musically strong as the lovers, and Jane Dutton becomes more impressive towards the end, having been allowed to indulge in a Mae West impression at the start. Orchestra and chorus are strong under Gerard Korsten but none of this could make up for the ennui on stage.