~ HWV 27 ~

Chandos Chaconne CHAN0719(3)
3 CDs
full price
Recorded in 2004.
Released in 2005.

Partenope: Rosemary Joshua, soprano
Arsace: Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor
Rosmira: Hilary Summers, contralto
Emilio: Kurt Streit, tenor, tenor
Armindo: Stephen Wallace, countertenor
Ormonte: Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-baritone

The Early Opera Company (on period instruments)
Director: Christian Curnyn





At the end of the 1727-1728 season the Royal Academy of Music stopped its activities and its star singers returned to the continent. Nevertheless, the opera seasons continued under the control of Handel and Heidegger. Handel visited Italy to recruit a new company of singers in spring 1729, but failed to engage Farinelli. Soprano Anna Maria Strada del Po (Partenope), castrato Antonio Maria Bernacchi (Arsace), contralto Antonia Maria Merighi (Rosmira) and tenor Annibale Pio Fabri (Emilio) were the main singers of the new troupe. Bernacchi was a star castrato, but in his 40’s, and he failed to make London audiences forget Senesino. 

During this so-called 'Second Academy' period, Handel was more independant than during the previous decade. Therefore it was perhaps an occasion to set to music a libretto that was rejected by the Royal Academy a few years before, maybe because of some comical and licentious aspects. Partenope has three suitors: Arsace, her favourite, already engaged to Rosmira; Emilio, whom she disdains and defeats on the battle field; Armindo, the constantly virtuous guy. Rosmira arrives disguised as a man and makes Arsace, who realises he still loves her (too!), promise not to reveal she is a woman. Rosmira takes advantage of this situation to psychologically torture Arsace, and the final revelation occurs when Rosmira is forced to fight a duel with Arsace after he insists that they must fight bare-chested. Though adapted, the libretto conserves characteristics of its Stampiglila original written for Naples in 1699. The inconstancy of the primo uomo and the prima donna definitely doesn’t fit comfortably within the canons of late 1720s and early 1730s opera seria, when Metastasio was a rising star. 

This new release of this higly contrasted work is particularly welcome, all the more the only commercial recording of Partenope (made in the late 1970’s under Sigiswald Kuijken) has not been available for several years. It was a good recording, just sometimes lacking some accuracy, with fine singers. The main problem was René Jacobs’s performance as Arsace. If his interpretation was really a fine one, his vocality based on notes attacked flat was often difficult to listen to. I would tend to say there is nothing exceptional in this new recording under Christian Curnyn, but pleasure and interest are there and both the execution and the interpretation are of a consistent high standard. From a vocal point of view, all is not perfect – for example tenor Kurt Streit doesn’t mix registers enough in high notes and countertenor Lawrence Zazzo tends to engorge his voice in arias – but the cast is really a good coherent one. The strong timbre and chest voice of Hilary Summers are ideal for the disguised role of Rosmira and her commitment often makes her arias – for example ‘Furie son dell’alma mia’ (Act II scene 5) – among the great moments. 

The ‘revelation’ of this recording – though not a surprise – is the countertenor Stephen Wallace. His warm and moving voice, combined with a good technique and very fine interpretation makes him a perfect Armindo. Although very good, Lawrence Zazzo’s performance often sounds less excellent, but Arsace’s part is much more demanding: I look forward to listening to Stephen Wallace in bigger Handel roles. Andrew Foster-Williams can suffer no reproach in the small part of Ormonte and the presence of Rosemary Joshua is definitely a good suprise. This fine singer, accustomed to singing Handel’s operas on stage, is definitely too rarely heard on recordings. Although I would have wished for more irony in her performance, her sensual voice fits Partenope's arias very well. The orchestra is excellent – more accurate than La Petite Bande was – and Curnyn’s conducting is elegant and stylish. The orchestra could have roared and shown more bite, but it’s difficult to say if it’s due to their playing or to the sound recording. This pleasant release easily fills the gap left by the unavailability of Kuijken’s recording.

© Philippe Gelinaud - July 2005

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