The Independent
14 October 2008
Edward Seckerson

REVIEW: Partenope, English National Opera

One of the joys of cross-gender casting is the extra layer of irony, not to say confusion, it adds. Things get wackily out of kilter in the final minutes of Christopher Alden's deliciously dry staging of Handel's sophisticated sitcom Partenope. Precisely who or why anyone is wearing the pants almost ceases to matter anymore. But when Arsace demands that he fight Eurimene bare-chested so as to expose “him” as a “her” (Rosmira), the double-whammy is that “he”, Arscace, is in fact played by a “she”, Christine Rice. You might want to read that again.

“Life is much more fun when slightly tormented”, observes the playful Partenope in Amanda Holden's witty new translation, and when we first observe her (Rosemary Joshua) posed like Kristin Scott Thomas impersonating Nancy Cunard for a glossy Cecil Beaton photo-shoot we know not to take her protestations of love too seriously. Handel's comedy of errors sits well amidst the artful indulgences of the roaring 1920s when the surrealists sought to toy with our perceptions, when gender-bending was oh, so chic, and a game of Gin Rummy and a very dry martini were the perfect distraction from ongoing affairs of the heart, and indeed the state. Partenope might easily be re-titled “Six Characters in Search of a Partner”.

Suffice it to say that Alden's staging, sharply dressed by costume designer Jon Morrell, plays naughtily and very convincingly on the idea that the sexual wars at home are far more perplexing for Partenope than the one threatening to dismantle her empire. Even the casualties of war are seen as “art” with the warrior Emilio, blisteringly sung by John Mark Ainsley, at one point arranging his very own photo-shoot of the fallen.

ENO can now add yet one more notable success to its impressive record in outstanding Handel productions. The musical values here were truly international with conductor Christian Curnyn turning ENO's orchestra into a stylistically authentic period-sounding band. Rosemary Joshua in the title role wore the clothes as elegantly as she sang the arias, her “butterfly” number in act two fluttering, palpitating, exquisitely; Patricia Bardon's cross-dressed Rosmira was feistily masculine and Iestyn Davies' ample alto really filled out the “droopy and mournful” Armindo. But it was Christine Rice as Arsace who sang an absolute blinder. Handel bestows on him/her a couple of his most ravishing arias, and how beautifully, simply, honestly, she sang them. All's not fair in love and war. But that's the fun of it.