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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Partenope, HWV27 (1730)
Karina Gauvin (soprano) – Partenope
Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) – Arsace
Emöke Baráth (soprano) – Armindo
John Mark Ainsley (tenor) – Emilio
Teresa Iervolino (mezzo) – Rosmira
Luca Tittoto (bass) – Ormonte
Il Pomo d’Oro/Riccardo Minasi
rec. Lonigo, Italy, 16-28 February, 2015. DDD
Booklet with text and translations included
ERATO 2564609007 [74:31 + 62:48 + 66:07]

Comparative recordings:
Krisztina Laki (Partenope), René Jacobs (Arsace), Helga Muller-Molinari (Rosmira), John York Skinner (Armindo), Martyn Hill (Emilio), Stephen Varcoe (Ormonte); La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken – rec. 1979.  Deutsche Harmonia Mundi: The Sony Opera House 88697529972.  (Super-budget price). Reviewed as part of Sony 22-CD Handel Opera set 88697489402 – no longer available in that format.
 
Rosemary Joshua (Partenope), Kurt Streit (Emilio), Stephen Wallace (Armindo), Andrew Foster-Williams (Ormonte), Hilary Summers (Rosmira), Lawrence Zazzo (Arsace); Early Opera Company/Christian Curnyn – rec. 2004. Chandos Chaconne CHAN0719. Reviewed as 24-bit download from theclassicalshop.net and eclassical.com.  (Also available from both in 16-bit and mp3.  Both downloads come with pdf booklet containing text and translation).

Partenope has been justly described as one of the most tuneful of the Handel rarities.  Though I have listened to selected arias on recital albums, I’m surprised that I have never heard the whole opera before, even though I inherited the ultra-budget half-shoebox-size Sony super-budget 22-CD set of Handel operas from a Handel-opera-buff friend who died some time ago.

The plot, taken from a 1699 libretto, is the usual complicated who-loves-whom, who-is-pretending-to-be-who, but that need not deter you from hearing some very fine music.  I think it was Hazlitt that advised that if you didn’t meddle with the allegory in Spenser’s Faerie Queene it wouldn’t meddle with you; not wholly good advice.  For all Handel’s dramatic skills, however, that’s a good way to deal with the plots of this and many baroque operas.  Read the synopsis which accompanies any of these three recordings and you will probably have to start all over again to sort it out.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed hearing this recording.

Complexity was a major factor in the plot of baroque operas and that of Partenope had been used at least twice* before Handel turned to it, despite one of his contemporaries describing it as ‘the very worst book (excepting one) that ever I read in my whole life’.  The mind boggles as to what the other might have been: I have my own culprits among eighteenth-century novels, a genre that I never warmed to.

I have not been able to see and hear the Decca DVD/blu-ray recording directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, which received good but not outstanding reviews, but that may be worth exploring if you need to follow all the intricacies of the plot.  I see, however, that it involves some of the ‘clever’ production ideas which I usually find spoil the effect for me – battles reduced to children’s games of musical chairs and rock-paper-scissors – so I’m not heartbroken to have missed out.

The Sony box contains the Kuijken set from 1979: I listened to it for the first time for comparison purposes and wondered why I hadn’t investigated it before.  The large booklet that came with that set contains track listings and a detailed synopsis – not linked to the track numbers – but no libretto and that seems to be the case with the 3-CD release.  Both theclassicalshop.net and eclassical.com generously offer the Chandos booklet as a download to all comers.  If you can find the 22-CD set for around £50 or less, it’s well worth considering: the performances, from the Sony stable, may not all be front-runners but there are no turkeys there either.

When the Kuijken recording was released in 1979 it was regarded as revelatory: Stanley Sadie in Gramophone described as comfortably the best Handel recording that he had ever heard and it was not outshone even by Kuijken’s own recording of Alessandro, which followed a few years later, fine as that is.  Incidentally, that version of Alessandro also features in the Sony box if you can still find it, or it can be obtained separately at super-budget price on 88697856552.

By the time that the Chandos recording appeared we had become a little more blasé about fine performances of Handel operas.  Colin Clarke reviewed for Seen and Heard the ENO production which ‘shared the astonishing Rosemary Joshua’ as Partenope and Christian Curnyn’s direction – review.  I share CC’s enthusiasm for Joshua in the title role and for Curnyn’s direction and, indeed, enjoyed the recording as a whole.  If you followed Jonathan Woolf’s recommendation of the Chandos recording as the pack leader for Semele (CHAN0797 – review), also with Joshua and Curnyn, you should find their Partenope very much to your liking, too.  Incidentally, as JW writes, the Malgoire recording of Semele – another denizen of the 22-CD Sony set – is one of the less recommendable contents of the box and it’s not surprising that it seems not to be currently available in any format.

I have greatly enjoyed listening to these three recordings consecutively and comparing them – not always a given in what can sometimes turn into a chore.  On the whole I have to award the prize to the new recording as at least a prima inter pares or first among equals.  Philippe Jaroussky as Arsace has a good deal to do with that.  It’s a long time since I first heard his very light countertenor and found it hard to take, but since then he has been very much an asset on every recording where I have heard him.  If you have yet to come to terms with his singing, try La Voix des Rêves for starters (Virgin/Erato blu-ray 0175919 or DVD 606659 – review).

Karina Gauvin’s Partenope, too, is a real asset.  Surprisingly, Partenope has not been extensively mined for recital albums.  Sandrine Piau with Les Talens Lyriques includes Partenope’s Act I aria L’amor ed il destin on Naïve E8928, a very worthwhile mid-price recording, but she doesn’t outshine Gauvin.

I might have preferred a countertenor Arsace, as on the other recordings, but Emöke Baráth’s performance disarmed all potential criticism.  Indeed, there are no deficiencies among the singers: I have seen the word ‘impeccable’ used to describe the casting and I certainly don’t intend to disagree.  Il Pomo d’Oro play with their usual aplomb and Riccardo Minasi directs with a sure hand from the violin and viola d’amore.  The pace of the recitatives is generally considered but I didn’t find them too ponderous, as I have seen suggested.  It’s no accident that Minasi and his team have recorded Handel for four different labels.

I’m not sure how valuable the four bonus tracks from the final revival at the end of CD3 will prove.  Most of the better CD players won’t allow you to slot them into their place in the action, though they can be enjoyed as separate items.

Recording quality is very good and, though the set is offered at an attractive price, no corners have been cut in the presentation.  The chunky booklet is a valuable addition to a fine set.

All three recordings, then, are well worth considering.  The impecunious need not hesitate to go for the DHM/Sony at super-budget price – around £13 – but the new Erato is currently on sale for very little more.  The Chandos sells for around £24 and the download can be yours for as little as £15.99 (mp3), with 16-bit lossless at £19.99 and 24-bit only a little more at £24.99.  The eclassical download is more expensive, at $34.21 (mp3 and 16-bit) or $51.31 but you may find their downloads easier to manage than Chandos’s own theclassicalshop, where 24-bit can take an inordinate time to come down the tubes.

All considered, despite my pleasure in hearing the earlier recordings, Minasi and his team make the strongest case for this tuneful opera and the new Erato is the one to go for.  Indeed, I considered it a possible candidate for Recording of the Month status.

* Leonardo Vinci’s La Rosmira fedele employs the same plot and was, indeed, issued with the title La Partenope on Dynamic CD and DVD – reviewreview.

Brian Wilson



 




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