Never mind the silly plot, this production's a treat - Partenope, ENO, Coliseum

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Patricia Bardon, Sarah Tynan and James Laing in English National Opera's Partenope at the London Coliseum
Patricia Bardon, Sarah Tynan and James Laing in English National Opera's Partenope at the London Coliseum Credit: Alastair Muir

I saw this production by Christopher Alden some nine years ago when it was first staged by ENO, but have retained virtually no memory of it at all. It’s that sort of a show – bright and breezy, slips down easy, but not something that leaves much after-taste.

Nor am I convinced by the scholarly claim that Partenope should rank as one of Handel’s finest operas. The pace is swift, there are some charming ensembles and the arias are generally shorter than they are in Tamerlano or Rodelinda. But there are none of those great heart-stopping moments that light up Ariodante or Alcina, and the eponymous central figure is one of those manipulative sex-kittens whom Handel would incarnate more subtly in Giulio Cesare and Semele.

Sarah Tynan as the eponymous Partenope Credit: Alastair Muir

As for the broadly comic plot, it is one of those silly baroque farragos in which everyone is in love with someone else, and making psychological sense of its whimsical twists and turns is hard and unrewarding work. Alden doesn’t aim for clarity: his concept ignores Partenope’s status as a warrior queen and transplants the amorous intrigues from a royal court to the beau monde of Noël Coward’s Design for Living, adding a surrealist flavour to its salon sophistication.

As concepts go, it’s not a bad one, although it gets more daftly camp as the evening proceeds and a lot of the gags (bananas are peeled, lavatory chains pulled and rabbits pulled out of hats) bear scant organic relationship to the plot or characters. It looks and sounds very good, however: Adam Lieberman and Jon Morrell’s elegant sets and costumes make an attractive spectacle, and Amanda Holden’s translation is both crisp and fluent.

Stephanie Windsor-Lewis in Partenope Credit: Alastair Muir

In the title role, Sarah Tynan is deliciously tart, sustaining shining tone and crystal diction through eight taxing arias, notably the beautiful Act 2 “Voglio amare”. Patricia Bardon is highly accomplished as the lovelorn Arsace, and spirited newcomer Stephanie Windsor-Lewis makes a vivid vocal impression as Rosmira-Eurimene. James Laing and Matthew Durkan both display comic flair as the fall guys Ormonte and Armindo, and Rupert Charlesworth, a late substitute for Robert Murray, sings with robust confidence as Emilio, presented here as the photographer Man Ray. They are all admirably sustained by Christian Curnyn, whose buoyant conducting draws vivacious playing from the band.

An unscheduled, unexplained and infuriating 40-minute interval meant a late curtain and many of the audience leaving before the end. Sad! 

Until March 24. Tickets: 020 7845 9300

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