Partenope was premiered in the King’s Theatre in 1730. Handel’s Academy of Music was in a serious crisis: the prime donne Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, after their scandalous fight on stage in front of a member of the royal family, had left England together with the castrato Senesino and Italian style of opera was being the target of satire, most notably in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Therefore, Handel decided to go to Italy to look for new stars for his company. There he discovered some new fashions in operatic writing, such as simpler melodies more in the popular taste. Determined to regain his audiences, Handel was sensitive to what he saw in Italy and to English audiences on composing Partenope. Even so, the opera was not successful.

It is a pleasing score with song-like arias, often very discretely accompanied by the orchestra. However, the most striking innovation in Partenope is that many “recitatives” are treated in melodic way, in the way one would expect to find in Italian Romantic opera, such as as in the exquisite almost-duet between Partenope and Arsace “Per te moro” suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Rosmira.

Karina Gauvin (Partenope), Teresa Iervolino (Rosmira), Emöke Baráth (Armindo), Philippe Jaroussky (Arsace), John Mark Ainsley (Emilio), Luca Tittoto (Ormonte), Il Pomo d’Oro, Riccardo Minasi

Riccardo Minasi’s studio recording uses basically the same edition based in the 1730 original run as recorded both by Sigiswald Kuijken and Christian Curnyn, but allowed himself to borrow some ideas from the 1737 revival, in which a soprano castrato took the role of Armindo (accordingly, we have here a soprano in this role) and, most interestingly, alternative numbers for a 1730 December rerun that includes a new finale ultimo, given as an appendix in CD 3. Minasi offers an account more theatrical than what one can hear in previous audio releases. His Pomo d’Oro has a characterful, slightly abrasive sound and continuo is imaginatively done and very much present. In Sento amore, it could as well be billed as some sort of obligato part. If this enhances atmosphere, the fact that the orchestral sound is also slimmer than, say, Curnyn’s (sometimes one has the strings reduced to something that one would easily take for one-per-part) makes one wishing for a little bit more warmth and less harpsichord filigree. The glamorous cast here gathered is something one would hardly find in an opera house, but comparisons with Curnyn’s London-centric singers show that these are more comfortable with their parts and often more charming to the ears. Karina Gauvin’s rich and full soprano creates the right aural impression in the role of the strong-willed Partenope, but, for all her charm, she may sound too mature. The coloratura is not truly smooth and, in order to keep purity of line in her upper register, she often scales down to anodyne smoky high notes. On the plus sound, she makes far more of the text than the otherwise irresistible Rosemary Joshua (Curnyn). As much as the idea of having the soprano Armindo for a change is interesring, I am afraid that, in the context of this performance, the choice of the bell-toned Emöke Baráth is ill-advised. She sounds lovelier than the prima donna and is hardly convincing in a trousers role. A darker-toned singer would have probably done the trick. Teresa Iervolino, on the other hand, is aptly not too masculine as Rosmira and handles her part adeptly. It is not her fault that Hillary Summers’s richer low notes are a special feature of Curnyn’s recording. Philippe Jaroussky’s beauty of tone, good taste and fluent coloratura are a treat to the ears, but the angelic tonal quality and the discrete personality are not truly what the alpha-male role of Arsace requires. At first, Kurt Streit’s brighter and more forceful tone seemed more appealing in comparison to John Mark Ainsley’s softer sound, but the English tenor’s clear divisions and tonal naturalness are strong assets in this repertoire. Luca Tittoto is a pitch-dark and idiomatic Ormonte.

Inger Dam-Jensen (Partenope), Tuva Semmingsen (Rosmira), Andreas Scholl (Arsace), Christophe Dumaux (Armindo), Bo Kristian Jensen (Emilio), Palle Knudsen (Ormonte), Concerto Copenhagen, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

Although very little happens in the plot of Partenope, staging this three-act opera must be somehow rewarding alone for the modernity of the title role: Partenope is a self-sufficient woman who looks for a partner her equal in confidence and falls for sex appeal before she notices the sensitive and low-profile guy who is not challenged by her success. Does that seem like a plot of an episode of Sex and the City? Director Francisco Negrin preferred to set it at some point between the 1930’s and 1940’s with black-tie-clad men, glamorous party dresses, champagne and a mosaic-decorated set (after all, one should have in mind that the action takes place in ancient Naples). Partenope is a strong-willed ruler plus femme fatale surrounded by bon vivants trying to get her attention, with the exception of the timid and good-hearted Armindo and of Ormonte, who is here as a mix of master of ceremonies and good genius. The concept is intelligently done, the stage direction is efficient (and this cast can certainly act) and the occasional silliness can easily be overlooked in the context of an insightful, no-nonsense production that balances serious and comic elements masterly (the battle scene is particularly funny). It is a pity that Uffe Borgwardt’s overcreative camerawork is really distracting and not very flattering for the leading lady. In musical terms, the performance is highly successful. Conductor Lars Ulrik Mortensen has a good ear for flowing rhythms, but knows how to help his singers out in tricky moments – and the Concerto Copenhagen offers lean yet warm sonorities. Inger Dam-Jensen’s rich, golden soprano suggests both the seductive and the assertive aspects of Partenope. Although she is quite generous with breath pauses during her runs, she has fluent coloratura, easy trills and a clear idea of who her character is. Tuva Semmingsen is a convincing – both vocally and scenically – Rosmira; her bright mezzo soprano is feminine in sound, but her forceful fioriture and her energetic approach make her disguise as a man believable. Although Andreas Scholl’s countertenor sounds rather juiceless these days, he still commands fast divisions with aplomb and is sensitive to the expressive demands of his role. Cristophe Dumaux’s velvetier tonal quality and richer low notes make for a more appealing rival – no wonder Partenope finally chooses him in the end. Bo Kristian Jensen’s firm-toned tenor is somewhat too corsé for this repertoire, but his technical finish finally enables him to create the right impression of impetuosity in his difficult arias (minus his final one, inexplicably transferred to Ormonte in the beginning of act I). Palle Knudsen’s bass is a bit nasal-toned and not entirely comfortable with the fast melisme in the aria borrowed from Emilio. The edition here adopted involves, as expected, various cuts, rearrangement of numbers and also the replacement of Partenope’s final aria by the exquisite duet Per le porte del tormento, from Handel’s Sosarme.

Rosemary Joshua (Partenope), Hilary Summers (Rosmira), Lawrence Zazzo (Arsace), Stephen Wallace (Armindo), Kurt Streit (Emilio), Andrew Foster-Williams (Ormonte), Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn

Compared to Riccardo Minasi or even  Nicholas McGegan’s (see below), Christian Curnyn’s conducting cannot help seeming too well-behaved for the circumstances. The orchestral sound is beautiful, warm and polished, but the performance sails along with self-indulgent comfort. This is particularly harmful in the battle scenes, right when the competition offers plenty of zest and excitement. That said, this sumptuously cast recording may convert a less adventurous Handelian to this light and charming work. In the title role, Rosemary Joshua’s shimmering creamy soprano is disarming. Hilary Summers’ gentle velvety contralto is also entirely fit for the role of Rosmira. Both countertenors here eschew all criticism -Lawrence Zazzo and Stephen Wallace are rich-toned and display healthy low registers. Zazzo also dispatch his divisions with the necessary aplomb, such as in the showpiece Furibondo spira il vento. Kurt Streit is one of the rare first-league tenors to venture in this repertoire. His handsome, firm tenor produces a flashing impression, even if the faster passagework may sound a tad mechanical. Finally, Andrew Foster-Williams is a forceful and accurate Ormonte.

Meredith Hall (Partenope), Annette Markert (Rosmira), Kai Wessel (Arsace), Chris Josey (Armindo), John McVeigh (Emilio), William Beyer (Ormonte), Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan

In his live recording, McGegan seems to have a magic touch for this score. Without exaggerations, the  work sounds here its most animated and appealing. Not only the recitatives are vividly done, but faster numbers have the necessary zest, while the slower ones are given complete charm, especially provided by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, offering rich sounds throughout. While a conductor like Kuijken (see below) presents Partenope as an oratorio, McGegan goes for a theatrical performance that never lets down, outstandingly in its orchestral passages, presented with immense vitality. In terms of cast, it is unfortunately not competitive with more recent recordings, though. Meredith Hall’s soprano has technical limitations and a basically pinched high register, but she can still produce the necessary sexy appeal – and this is of paramount importance for the role of Partenope. As Rosmira, Annette Markert sings in a flexible contralto with plenty of energy. Kai Wessel’s voice sounds here richer than in his other recordings in this repertoire and his interpretation skills seem more varied too, but the role of Arsace still needs more flamboyance. In the less demanding role of Armindo, Chris Josey is pleasing enough. As Emilio, John McVeigh’s bright-toned tenor has its ugly moments in passagework. William Beyer’s voice is on the high side for the role of Ormonte. The recording is natural and spacious. There are stage noises and the audience expresses its satisfaction too often. Finally, it must be noted that one aria has been cut and some recitatives trimmed.

Krisztina Laki (Partenope), Helga Müller-Mollinari (Rosmira), René Jacobs (Arsace), John York Skinner (Armindo), Martyn Hill (Emilio), Stephen Varcoe (Ormonte), La Petite Bande, René Jacobs

Sigiswald Kujiken was the first conductor to record Partenope, and his interest seems to be purely musical. The performance is stylish and he has a good orchestra, but there is not an ounce of theatricality in the proceedings. In an unidiomatic cast, Helga Müller-Mollinari’s reasonably fluent Italian stands out. As a result, she ends on being the most characterful singer in this recording. Moreover, she is in charming voice and very cunningly makes clear when she is Rosmira the maid and when she is Rosmira disguised as a guy. Krisztina Laki’s fast-vibrato-ish crystalline soprano has a touch of Gundula Janowitz in it, but that is probably the problem of her Partenope. When you have almost every other character in the opera desperately in love with her, you cannot help thinking that she should sound sexier. In any case, she is stylish and musicianly, but could do with flashier coloratura. Martyn Hill’s voice also lacks charm for Emilio, but his strong low register provides him some authority (in fact, his tenor occasionally sounds darker than Stephen Varcoe’s bass). The castrato roles leave more than something to be desired. The character of Arsace says things such as “God, help me to make my mind about which one of my pretty lovers I should keep” – and René Jacobs’s affected singing here simply never illustrates the alpha male he is supposed to be. I know that it is not historically correct to expect that Handel should have cast the part with a bass, but a contralto like Carolyne Watkinson would have seemed more believable… “macho”. John York adopts a more sober style, but his voice is rather pale, even if he sings with good taste. The part was originally cast with a contralto, but Kuijken defends that Handel only did it because there was no castrato available. I am convinced that Kuijken should have followed Handel’s example of policy in case of absence of castrati.