Partenope was not a highly regarded work in its day, though it subsequently enjoyed the distinction of being among the first Handel operas to receive a decent recording with period instruments. That was Sigiswald Kuijken’s in 1979, with La Petite Bande and a cast that included Krisztina Laki, René Jacobs and Helge Müller-Molinari, and its quality and many wisdoms were sufficient in themselves to attract attention at a time when the Handel opera revival was yet to get under way. The work has not been recorded again until now, when greater general familiarity with Handel’s output renders it not only less of an exotic stranger but also reveals it to be one of its composer’s more interesting dramatic creations.
Handel composed it for the 1730 London season, less than a year into the so-called ‘Second Academy’ period in which he enjoyed increased artistic control over his productions. Partenope was a subject he had long coveted and with a new troupe of singers, less starry than before, he seems to have relished the chance to tone down the rattling virtuosity in favour of a more ‘company’ feel, and with it a more genuine and subtle mode of expression. He was helped by a strong libretto which is well set-out, humane with a touch of gentle humour, and features characters who are lifelike and credible. Partenope, Queen of Naples, is wooed by three suitors – the overly proud enemy general Emilio, the mopy but deserving Armindo, and her own favourite, Arsace. Arsace, however, is tormented by the woman he left behind, Rosmira, who is hanging around and making mischief disguised as a man. Eventually, and after much soul-searching, Arsace forces her to reveal her identity by challenging her to a bare-chest duel (which she declines). The couple are reunited, Partenope settles for Armindo, and Emilio accepts his rejection philosophically.
Christian Curnyn conducts a highly competent performance thoroughly in the groove of modern Handelian style, with a cast that has no vocal weaknesses and many dramatic virtues: Rosemary Joshua as Partenope and Hilary Summers as Rosmira have the most technically demanding music, but Joshua’s brightly confident singing also effortlessly suggests a woman both regal and desirable, while the dark-voiced Summers sounds like someone not to be messed with. Lawrence Zazzo conveys well the deepening suffering of Arsace, Stephen Wallace shows us the emerging nobility of Armindo, and if Kurt Streit sounds rather like a tenor stepping out of his usual Mozartian realm, then as the pompous Emilio he does need to be a little out of step with the others and his voice and Italian diction are both irresistibly splendid. In general the singing has a warmth to it that the (by no means redundant) Kuijken version does not always find, and although there are times when the recitatives could make room for more dramatic flexibility and conviction, this is nevertheless a thoroughly recommendable release for Baroque opera fans. (Lindsay Kemp / Gramophone)