in: Reviews

October 20, 2012

Partenope A Total Delight with Boston Baroque


Not often can one attend a concert that is a sheer delight from beginning to end, even in Boston where there are so many top-notch ensembles offering an abundant array of listening opportunities. Friday night, October 19th Boston Baroque opened its season with Handel’s comic/dramatic opera Partenope, and the evening was a legitimate triumph for all concerned. The music had its first performance in London at King’s Theatre on February 24, 1730 under Handel’s direction, and these Boston performances are believed to be the first ever presented here. I urge any early music and Handel aficionado to attend tonight’s final performance.

In a production of such depth of talent as this, one is hard-pressed to be concise in one’s praise, but I must certainly begin with Amanda Forsythe, who sang the title role as Partenope, Queen of Naples.  She is now, simply, a world-class singer. Not a single vocal challenge – and there were many – was ungracefully met and surpassed, most often with singular beauty of gleaming tone, effortless fioritura, dead-on intonation, and wonderfully inventive da capo ornamentation. I was not alone in my admiration of her artistry – it was gratifying to observe several members of the orchestra’s peerless woodwind section smiling and nodding to one another in appreciation of what Ms. Forsythe was accomplishing with seemingly effortless aplomb. She literally stopped the show several times as the audience enthusiastically demonstrated its rightful admiration for her work

Martin Pearlman was in complete command of this 3½-hour score, leading with authority and idiomatic understanding of Handelian style.

The Boston Baroque orchestra is populated with virtuosos in every section, and while it may be easy to expect to hear perfection in Baroque music performance when accustomed to it by listening to edited CD recordings, in reality it is much more difficult to achieve when everything is happening “live on stage.” Such issues as temperature and humidity swings on stage in the course of an evening can wreak havoc on tuning and, in the case of the strings, bowing. Yet these players betrayed hardly any such effects. Examples of heroic playing abounded: Rick Menaul and cohort Robert Marlatt sat for over an hour before either played a single note on their natural horns. Yet when the final scene of Act I arrived, they played their stubbornly recalcitrant instruments with note-perfect fiery virtuosity and panache. The woodwinds were splendid, with fabulous playing throughout the evening from oboists Marc Schachman and Lani Spahr, abetted by the wonderfully matched playing of flautists Christopher Krueger and Wendy Rolfe, with the ever-reliable bassoonist Andrew Schwartz anchoring below. The violin sections were marvels of unanimity and beauty of tone. Christina Day Martinson authoratively led them from the Concertmaster’s chair, and the redoubtable Danielle Maddon, who sat opposite her as Principal second, abetted her at every turn. The dashing continuo group sported such local keyboard luminaries as Michael Beattie and Peter Sykes, each playing a harpsichord, Victor Coelho making very creative use of his theorbo, and Deborah Dunham lending her usual rock-solid support on violone. In short, here was a Baroque orchestra of tip-top talent, playing at the peak of commitment.

Handel’s Partenope is something of a challenge to describe. It’s an opera that recounts a presumed bit of historical fiction yet does so with a very healthy larding of buffa humor. It’s a credit to stage director David Gately that this production, for the most part, didn’t present too much visual dissonance between these possibly at-odds idioms. French farce didn’t seem very distant at times. In fact, one left the hall remembering Partenope’s many humorous moments more than its dramatic ones, and I suppose this is what Handel intended. He certainly wrote remarkably and reliably top-drawer material for everyone on stage, with aria after aria of wonderful invention and freshness. Even as the long evening’s end approached, one was never fatigued by the amazing surfeit of music as much as by the unforgiving seats in Jordan Hall.

Of the singers, one could hardly offer a quibble. Kirsten Sollek’s strong and plummy contralto seemed made for her pants role of Eurimene, the disguised Rosmira, thwarted lover of Arsace, the Prince of Corinth. Ms. Sollek made the most of her many contributions with a minimum of staginess and a maximum of thoughtful movement and characterization. Countertenors Owen Willetts as Arsace and David Trudgen as the indecisive but ultimately fortunate Ormindo, the Prince of Rhodes brought to their compellingly different vocal timbres excellent stage presence and fabulous virtuoso singing. Mr. Willetts was given the larger musical challenges, and he handily rose to each occasion. Tenor Aaron Sheehan played the curiously ambivalent role of Emilio, Prince of Cumae, who first arrives to overpower and conquer Partenope’s realm, but immediately falls in love with his enemy and thereafter seeks to join his country (and body) with Partenope. His bright and elegant singing mirrored the wide mix of emotions his role required. Baritone Andrew Garland personified the stiffly militaristic Ormonde, commander of Partenope’s troops.

I’ve purposely not enumerated here all of the twists in the complicated plot of this remarkable opera, as to do so would only burden the reader with dull descriptive verbiage. Suffice it to say that the plot offers an abundance of humorous twists and turns as one would expect of an opera buffa. Yet there are several moments of drama, vividly painted by Handel with brilliant writing for brass and percussion in the battle scene, and the aforementioned horns in the Rosmina/Eurimene aria where s/he sings of being more challenged by the pitfalls and snares of love than a wild hunt through the forest.

Boston Baroque wisely opted for highly legible supertitles of the English translation of the Italian text that were broadcast from the left and right edges of the stage. This allowed one’s eyes to remain focused on the action occurring on stage for the duration of this semi-staged offering— a significant plus.

In sum, this was a highly entertaining and auspicious beginning to Boston Baroque’s season, a triumph for all concerned. By all means, don’t miss it!

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 34 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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