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Handel : Partenope  

Prom 4

Royal Albert Hall, London, 19th July 2009


Inger Dam-Jensen (Partenope),
Tuva Semmingsen (Rosmira),
Andreas Scholl (Arsace),
Christophe Dumaux (Armindo),
Bo Kristian Jensen (Emilio ),
Palle Knudsen (Ormonte),

Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen


Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Concerto Copenhagen may not be household names in Britain, but they are well respected in European baroque circles. So if the Royal Albert Hall audience was surprisingly sparse, the enthusiasm of those who were there made up for lack of numbers.  


Handel’s Partenope has been performed at least three times this year already – at the ENO and then in Vienna at Theater an der Wien, the lively, innovative alternative to the Vienna Opera. The Vienna performance was broadcast recently by BBC Radio 3 as part of its cycle of Handel operas. Each version has been dramatically different, demonstrating just how much potential there is in this opera, and how it remains as pointed now as it did 200 years ago.


The Royal Albert Hall is anything but a good place for baroque opera, which benefits from smaller, more enclosed spaces. Indeed, during the First Act, the ensemble seemed to be feeling their way, rather than demonstrating their obvious fluency. Rehearsals in this vast barn of an auditorium are no preparation for the real thing, because dynamics change completely when the building is filled, and sound is cushioned by the presence of an audience. Technicians may explain it more accurately, but I kept hearing reverberations bounce off the back walls, creating a bizarre echo effect. This strange “stereo” varied frequently, so it must have been difficult for the performers to anticipate and overcome. Fortunately, on the re-broadcast on BBC Radio 3, the balances have been resolved.


Conducting from the harpsichord with expansive gestures, Mortensen creates an energetic realization. If at times, it seemed a little rough and ready, this was an advantage, for it added to the sense of immediacy and drama. In Handel’s time, music wasn’t polished or precious, but lively and direct.  Handel audiences didn’t listen with timers and scores, looking for demerits. If Mortensen’s pace was spirited, it felt right as drama.


Mortensen respected significant details, like the two horns in Act One, calling attention on several levels, heralding the natural trumpet that solos in the Third Act. Where Mortensen speeds things up it’s well judged. This in itself is an insight. Singers nowadays are far more technically adept then they were in Handel’s time. They can sing difficult passages with such fluency they don’t sound rushed. Handel was writing long before singers had the training they have today, so they can cope with challenges.  Vivacity of expression is what counts above all, in musical drama.


As Partenope, Inger Dam-Jensen looked lovely, in a gown of gold.  She’s much underrated as a singer. Partenope allows her to sing florid flourishes, which she carries off with majesty. Nonetheless, Partenope, the Queen adored by countless admirers, is no airhead. She commands in battle and has the sense to pick Armindo for her spouse, rather than the flashy Arsace. Dam-Jensen’s Partenope is thoughtfully down to earth, despite the giddiness around her.


The presence of countertenor superstar Andreas Scholl alone would have made this Prom a success.  Good as the other singers are, he’s in an altogether more elevated league. Unlike some others in his fach, his countertenor sounds completely masculine and natural. Even at the top of his register he’s fluid, completely unforced. Again this matters, as Arsace is packed with enough testosterone to attract strong women like Partenope and Rosmira.  Again and again, Scholl produces tours de force which express character as well as vocal fireworks. “Furibondo spira il vento” he sings at the end of the second act “e sconvolge il Cielo e ‘l suol.” It really does feel like we’ve been shaken by a force of nature.


Scholl can act, too, camping up his lines with witty glee. Arsace isn’t a straight man but a caricature, not quite the hero he plays at being, so Scholl’s acting expresses the humour in the character. Yet Scholl’s Arsace is capable of genuine tenderness and depth.  Witness his duets with Rosmira (Tuva Semmingsen), extremely beautiful and sensitive.


Tuva Semmingsen
is fairly young, but is definitely a singer to keep following. She portrays Rosmira as resourceful and determined, with enough richness in her voice to hint at deeper levels of personality.  Semmingsen’s contralto is rich without being cloying, with a firm center. What lies ahead for her ? She has a future and not just in novel things like singing in the soundtrack for Lars von Trier’s controversial new film, Antichrist. She’s singing at Glyndebourne this year, too, something to look forward to.

Christophe Dumaux’s Armindo was also impressive. For any counter tenor to compete with Andreas Scholl, he has to be. His voice is well-controlled and has lasting promise.  If some of the other singing was at times unsteady, perhaps it was the shock of singing at the Royal Albert Hall, where even the best have to adjust to the gargantuan dynamics.


Anne Ozorio


Partenope, with the same cast, was filmed in Denmark recently and is available on DVD [Editor]

Handel - Partenope

Decca 074 3348, 2 DVDs, 3 hours


The Royal Danish Opera, recorded October 2008


Partenope – Inger Dam-Jensen

Arsace – Andreas Scholl

Amindo – Christophe Dumaux

Rosmira – Tuva Semmingsen

Emilio – Bo Kristian Jensen

Ormonte – Palle Knudsen


Conductor – Lars Ulrik Mortensen

Director – Francisco Negrin

Set & Costumes – Louis Desire

Lighting – Bruno Poet

TV Director – Uffe Borgwardt


The libretto of Partenope is a satirical comedy set in the Southern Italy of classical times.  A trio of suitors (Arsace, Amindo and Emilio) are lined up to woo Queen Partenope, with Rosmira, Princess of Cyprus, mixing in disguised as a man to wrest Arsace for herself.


In Francisco Mortensen’s production the scene is shifted to a modern day yuppy-ish party in which real life rivalries keep working their way to the surface amongst the polite festivities.  It would be easy to imagine contestants to become Alan Sugar’s apprentice behaving in just such a manner, with emotions becoming less guarded as time progresses and the knife sharpens.


The device works well and, with the aid of a strong acting cast, sustains the rather slow moving story line over three hours.


The score is one of Handel’s finest and the quality of the arias written for Partenope and Rosmira are very evenly balanced so that it is easy to understand how difficult it is for Arsace to choose between them.  These three roles form the meat of the opera and all are superbly sung in this production. 


The usual sequence of da capo arias is leavened by a lively battle scene at the beginning of Act II (a complicated game of musical chairs in this reading) and Act III includes both a trio and a quartet. 


The stage of Copenhagen’s traditional city-centre opera house is an ideal auditorium, with its pit providing comfortable space for the instrumentalists of the Concerto Copenhagen to group around the harpsichord of Musical Director Lars Ulrik Mortensen.


Whether or not you are a dedicated Handelian this DVD has much to offer – opera at the cutting edge of reality TV – coupled with superb singing!


Serena Fenwick