The Observer
Sunday, 12 October 2008
Anthony Holden

REVIEW: Partenope
A gender-bending Handel with beards
Partenope updated to 1920s Paris is a Surreal triumph

Eerily identical twins, the American brothers Alden have been cutting directorial dashes on the world's operatic stages for three decades now, provoking unpredictable but invariably extreme responses. If there is a discernible difference between their iconoclastic styles, it is that David errs on the side of caricature (as in his recent Calisto at Covent Garden), while Christopher digs deeper in search of modern parallels, like truffles, to reinvent the classical repertoire.

Such is the case with his new staging for English National Opera of Partenope, Handel's first break with opera seria, fast-forwarded from Ancient Greek Naples to 1920s Paris. Mobile top hats, silly beards, pipe-smoking broads, voyeuristic cameras: this is the seductively surreal salon world of Man Ray and André Breton, subtly milking Handel's gender-bending love tangle to stage a sexual battle royal. If the price of some stylish symbolism is a few low-rent lavatory jokes, hey, this is operatic surrealism, where anything goes in the service of high irony. Alden peels his characters like onions, layer by layer, as does Handel's sumptuous score, to the point where only the threat of complete exposure can resolve their knotty intrigues.

On Andrew Lieberman's elegant sets, soprano Rosemary Joshua leads an accomplished cast of Handelians who, like the staging, grow in confidence and clarity as the evening progresses. Mezzos Christine Rice and Patricia Bardon have their impressive moments, as does tenor John Mark Ainsley in the pivotal role of the outsider; but it is counter-tenor Iestyn Davies whose astonishingly agile, forceful voice upstages them all. Like most Handel operas, it is far too long, nearer four hours than three. But Alden's inventive, if at times perverse reading is kept buoyant by the superb playing of ENO's house orchestra under debutant Christian Curnyn.