What drew Handel to this libretto? Perhaps it was the same mix of serious and comic elements that Swiney objected to, but that was so characteristic of operas with Venetian ancestry. A libretto penned in 1699 would naturally have reflected the 17th century aesthetic of high drama mixed with low humor, peppered with contemporary jokes from buffoonish characters. Like Handel’s early Agrippina and the much later Serse, one written for Venice and one set to a Venetian libretto from 1654, Partenope defies genres. Magic and spectacle are entirely absent, along with thorny subplots and absurd last-minute revelations, and Handel eliminated two unneeded jokesters. And, except when Partenope likens her love life to that of a butterfly flitting around a flame (in the beguiling aria “Qual farfalletta”), we find none of those emotionally distancing simile arias where a character claims to feel like a cloud fleeing the wind, a hunter moving steadily and stealthily through the forest, or a rudderless ship in a tempest.(1)
Could it have been the ever so slightly feminist tone of the story that attracted the composer? Partenope’s two female characters blow the men out of the water with their fortitude and complexity. Instead of heroic conflicts between love and duty so common to Handel’s other works, we have “a psychological study of the relations between the sexes seen largely from the woman’s point of view,” in the words of Handel scholar Winton Dean.
As the Queen of Naples, Partenope boasts a collection of suitors and enjoys playing them off against each other. Christopher Alden sees her as a vaguely disinterested salon hostess: carefree, almost vapid, but her music—in major keys with one exception, full of lilting soprano filigree and charm—consistently captivates us. Rosmira, one of Handel’s very best mezzo-soprano roles, is more complex. She’s come in drag to Partenope’s court to track down the man who jilted her. Even when posing as “Eurimene,” behind her determination and inner torments we see the fascinating, passionate, and witty woman Rosmira is destined to be. She is true to Arsace, a shallow cad with a short attention span. First sung by the alto castrato Antonio Bernacchi, an unpopular substitute for the super-star Senesino, Arsace is interested in what’s right in front of him, without the moral decision-making power to regulate his behavior until it’s almost too late. Handel, dramatically astute as always, saves Arsace’s best music for Act Three.
The timid Armindo is hardly a contender, until he develops the nerve—encouraged by “Eurimene”—to declare his love for Partenope. Although Handel’s first Armindo was a female contralto, he used castrati for later revivals of the opera, so a contemporary countertenor makes casting sense. Adding to Partenope’s lineup of lovers is Emilio, an outsider like Rosmira/Eurimene. Rather than insinuating himself into the group by disguise, however, he is confrontational, with assertive music designed for a supremely virtuosic tenor voice. In this production, Alden likens Emilio to famed Surrealist photographer Man Ray, and he is always around, with his camera intruding, capturing, and interpreting the situation. The one character not in pursuit of Partenope is her captain Oromonte, a bass with a single aria, as in so many other operas of Handel. Here he offers a steadying, philosophical word: “In love, as in battle, you have to take a chance.”
Perhaps Handel was fascinated by the subtly shifting relationships between these characters. Numerous asides highlight the fact that not everyone is on the same page, so it’s important to keep track of who knows what when. Arsace wonders why he is attracted to “Eurimene,” and while it might make him uncomfortable, we are touched. Once she has sworn him to secrecy, Rosmira is able to insult and humiliate Arsace without retaliation, to everyone’s amazement. Poor, timid Armindo, not in on the disguise, is hurt when his friend “Eurimene” starts coming on to Partenope, who he just admitted he loves. Best of all, when Rosmira cheekily challenges Arsace to combat, he says he won’t fight. We know why, but the clueless people onstage respond:
Emilio: What servile Baseness! (Aside)
Armindo: What unmanly Fears! (Aside)
But to the bold Rosmira/Eurimene:
Armindo: What Prodigy of Valour! (Aside)
Emilio: How undaunted! (Aside)
Arsace then bursts into song, but Rosmira beats him to the rhyme:
Arsace: And will that unrelenting Mind,
To stormy Passions all resign’d,
Pursue me with eternal Hate?
Rosmira: (Ah Wretch! Perfidious and ingrate!) (Aside to him)
Arsace: And can such brooding Vengeance nest
In the soft Mansion of that Breast?
(Rosmira! Oh Rosmira say.) (Aside to her.)
Rosmira: (Oh basely! Skillful to betray.) (Softly.)
Arsace: Oh! Turn on me those lovely Eyes,
And do not all my Prayers despise,
(Rosmira! Oh Rosmira fair!). (Aside to her.)
Rosmira: (Thou faithless Cause of all my Care!) (Aside to him.)(2)
It’s a deliciously witty scene. Rather than contemporary humor based on vulgarity, exaggeration, and sight gags, Partenope’s subtle comedy comes from these skewed perspectives.
Many of the arias in Partenope are short and personal, juicy and real. The characters here, with their feelings so close to the surface, are often unable to present a conventional aria. (And notice how many arias don’t demand the predictable exit.) We should realize from the trite duet they sing (“I die for you / and I for you / dear jewel / beloved”) that Arsace and Partenope are not going to end up together. Certainly, as in opera seria, there are rage arias, soul-searching moments, and internal monologs in the form of accompanied recitatives, but there are also lighter, situational pieces, like Arsace’s first aria:
Either Eurimene is giving off Rosmira’s vibe,
Or Rosmira is pretending to be Eurimene.
The more I contemplate this
The more confused I am.(3)
Rosmira’s disguise gives her access to Partenope’s circle, where she can observe the fickle Arsace and make him squirm. (Similarly, the abandoned Amastre in Handel’s Serse comes to his court dressed as a man, only to learn that he is engaged to another.) Disguise also confers unexpected power. As “Eurimene” Rosmira is able to connect with Armindo, getting him to open up about his feelings for Partenope and eventually act on them.
Shakespeare, of course, made excellent use of gender-swapping, doubly complex with young boys playing female roles. As You Like It’s Rosalinde, disguised as “Ganymede,” safely teaches Orlando how to love her. As “Fidele,” Cymbeline’s Imogen evades a murder attempt, while Portia poses as a young male Clerk of the Law to successfully defend Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. Only Viola, the heroine of Twelfth Night, finds restriction in her male disguise when she falls in love with Orsino, the melancholy duke she is serving as “Cesario,” but is unable to express it openly.
A Shakespearean tone—the gentle tone of his comedies—does color Partenope. And there is a musical tone as well. Verdi often spoke of the tinta of his operas: the orchestral colors and choice of keys that lent each work a specific atmosphere. We might think of Handel’s operas as having a musical quality based on the distribution of vocal parts. The works with mostly treble voices, or those that lack a tenor role, or the operas featuring dueling sopranos have a different feel than Partenope (4). Here there is a richness to the vocal spectrum that brings a welcome variety and naturalness to the various satellites revolving around the sun of Partenope. Stephen Wadsworth, who directed the U.S. premiere in 1988 at Opera Omaha, celebrates the layers of meaning in Partenope: “Some situation comedy scenes play amusingly, for sure, but as with all these operas of Handel, things can go either way. There’s music of incredible emotion, and if you just zoom past it, the piece won’t work. It has to be played for keeps.”
(1) If you are playing “name that tune,” they are Nerone’s “Come nube che fugge dal vento” from Agrippina, Giulio Cesare’s “Va tacito e nascosto,” and too many “Qual nave” arias to name them all, but Cleopatra’s “Da tempeste” will do!
(2) from the 1730 libretto, with its literary, rhyming, and fleshed out English translation. With no controlling or visionary stage director in the 18th century, the libretto often holds clues to stage action and character interpretation
(3) my translation
(4) Alessandro, Admeto, Riccardo Primo, Siroe, and Tolomeo