'Partenope': The Quirky Side of G. F. Handel

From the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna

THE HIT SINGLE

In the second act, when Arsace's honor is challenged, Partenope (soprano Christine Schaefer) decides to stand by him, in the aria "Voglio amare."

The B Side

Arsace (countertenor David Daniels) reveals the depth of his feelings for Rosmira in the Act Three aria, "Ch'io parta?"

There are certain creative artists whose names seem exclusively tied to deadly serious work. In the movie world, Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind. The legendary director of thrillers and shockers such as Notorious, Psycho and The Birds wasn't famous for his funny bone.

Christine Schaefer and David Daniels

hide captionSoprano Christine Schaefer sings the title role, with countertenor David Daniels as Arsace, in Handel's Partenope from Vienna.

Armin Bardel

Still, even Hitchcock came up with at least one film that could legitimately be called a comedy. It's his 1955 effort The Trouble with Harry, featuring a group of innocent townsfolk, so generous and big-hearted that they vie to accept guilt for a murder that never took place.

When it comes to opera, there are any number of composers with equally serious reputations — including George Frideric Handel, who made his fame in London in the 1700s. Like fans of popular movie directors today, 18th-century opera lovers followed Handel's work eagerly, wondering what each new piece might bring. What they seldom wondered was whether those new dramas would be serious or comic. There wasn't much question about that.

Handel worked in a genre now called "opera seria" — meaning "serious opera." His theatrical world was filled with epic, emotional struggles: tragic heroes dealing with life-threatening dilemmas; doomed lovers saying their final goodbyes.

Like Hitchcock, however, Handel also had his lighter side, and he showed it off in 1730, with a quirky yet richly-scored comic opera called Partenope. Its story revolves around two resourceful women. One is a ditzy queen with a trio of hapless lovers. The other is a jilted bride in search of the guy who dumped her. She shows up disguised as a man, and maintains the ruse until she's forced to decide between revealing her identity and exposing herself — literally.

The opera's premiere, in 1730, was at best a modest success, and even now it's not among Handel's most familiar or popular operas. But it does feature several of the composer's most intriguing characters and some of his finest and most expressive music.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Partenope from the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna. The stars are soprano Christine Schaefer as Queen Partenope and contralto Patricia Bardon as Rosmira, the cross-dresser, with countertenor David Daniels as the dashing knight caught between the two women. Also featured are conductor Christophe Rousset and the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, renowned for their performances of Baroque opera.

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The Story of 'Partenope'

Kurt Streit and Christine Schaefer

hide captionWhen Emilio (tenor Kurt Streit) declares war, Partenope (soprano Christine Schaefer) says she'll defend the realm herself — and she's got the hardware to do the job.

Armin Bardel
David Daniels and Patricia Bardon

hide captionForced into a potentially compromising position, Rosmira (contralto Patricia Bardon) concedes the "duel" to an ebullient Arsace (countertenor David Daniels).

Armin Bardel

WHO'S WHO?

  • Christine Schaefer ....... Partenope
  • David Daniels ................... Arsace
  • Patricia Bardon ................ Rosmira
  • Kurt Streit ........................... Emilio
  • Florian Boesch ................ Ormonte
  • Matthias Rexroth ............. Armindo
  • Les Talens Lyriques
  • Christophe Rousset, conductor

The text of Handel's Partenope was adapted from a popular libretto by the writer Silvio Strampiglia. In ancient legend, Partenope — also called Parthenope — was a siren who threw herself into the sea and died after failing to seduce Hercules. As a result, a nearby city — now called Naples — was named after her. And some modern Neapolitans still call themselves "Parthenopians."

In the opera, Partenope is the Queen of early Naples, and she has a surplus of potential husbands. As ACT ONE begins, there are three of them. One is Arsace, a handsome young prince. Another is Emilio; he's the leader of a rival kingdom, and might well be at war with Partenope if he hadn't fallen in love with her. The third suitor is called Armindo. He's a well-meaning young man, but hardly a Casanova.

While Partenope is evaluating the three suitors, a new character appears. Her name is Rosmira, but she's disguised as a man, and introduces herself as Eurimene — the sole survivor of a tragic shipwreck. But actually, Rosmira is Arsace's ex-fiancee. He left her at the altar, and now she's tracked him down.

Arsace recognizes her immediately, but says nothing to anyone else. When they're alone, he claims that he still loves Rosmira. But she doesn't trust him. To test his loyalty, she makes him swear an oath that he won't reveal her true identity, or even that she's actually a woman. Arsace agrees, hoping to win her back.

Meanwhile, Rosmira discovers that Armindo isn't just a princely suitor for Partenope. He's truly in love with her — but hasn't told Partenope because, rumor has it, she has promised herself to Arsace. This has turned Armindo into a bit of a mope, and when Partenope demands to know what he's sulking about, he admits his feelings for her. But the queen says she's formally committed to Arsace. To nip that in the bud, Rosmira steps in, as "Eurimene," and says that "he" is also in love with Partenope.

Then Emilio, the other suitor, shows up. He's brought his troops, intending to pay homage to Partenope. When she refuses to marry him, he threatens to declare war on Naples. Partenope tells him to bring it on, and says she'll lead the city's defense herself.

All this leaves poor Armindo even further out in the cold. He's especially upset with Eurimene — that is, Rosmira — who has made his pursuit of Partenope even more difficult. She tells him not to worry. Rosmira, it seems, has another agenda altogether.

At the top of ACT TWO, the battle takes place. Partenope leads her army to victory. The mild-mannered Armindo saves the Queen's life in the process, and Emilio is taken prisoner. Rosmira, still posing as Eurimene, has also participated in the conflict, and claims "he" is responsible for capturing Emilio. Arsace says that's not true — he did it himself. Rosmira, living up to her warrior disguise, challenges Arsace to a duel. Partenope sides with Arsace, and has the supposed Eurimene arrested.

And that's a problem for Arsace. Having promised that he'll do nothing that might reveal Rosmira's identity, he can hardly fight her in a duel, and he doesn't want her in jail, either. Partenope senses his hesitance, and agrees to release the prisoner.

As the act winds down, the lovesick Armindo makes another attempt to win Partenope's hand, and this time she seems to be weighing the relative merits of Armindo and Arsace. Rosmira feels sorry for Armindo. Still in disguise, she sends him to Partenope, to tell her that Eurimene has a secret that might help the queen make up her mind. But when Arsace approaches Rosmira again, declaring his love, she turns him down.

In ACT THREE, Rosmira reaveals her secret. Still in disguise as Eurimene, she tells Partenope that she challenged Arsace to defend the honor of the Princess of Cypress — because Arsace left the princess at the altar. Questioned by Partenope, Arsace admits that this is true. Appalled, Partenope dumps him, and turns to Armindo.

Under normal circumstances, Arsace might be fine with that. After all, he still loves Rosmira. But he's also scheduled to face her in a duel at dawn. Depressed, he retires for the night, and Rosmira seeks him out. Arsace offers her his sword, and with Partenope listening in secret, he appeals to Rosmira by name. At that, Partenope comes out from hiding, demanding to know why he's evoking the name of a woman he betrayed. When she berates him for it, she's joined by Rosmira — still pretending to be Eurimene. The duel, it seems, is still on.

The challengers take the field, and swords are drawn. (Actually, in the production from Vienna, the "duel" is to be fought with boxing gloves!) Understandably, Arsace is reluctant to fight and Rosmira taunts him. Then, in a clever stroke, he declares that he'll fight the contest barechested. According to custom, his opponent must do the same. Rosmira has a choice. She can reveal herself, or expose herself — which would be more or less the same thing, but a lot more embarrassing. So she tells everyone who she really is, and concedes that Arsace has proven his love by keeping his promise not to betray her.

Partenope is satisfied that everything has turned out for the best. As the opera ends, she takes Armindo as her husband, while Arsace and Rosmira are finally back together.

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