Monday, 29 June 2009

Handel's Partenope

BBC Radio 3's Handel opera cycle continues with Partenope, which is available to hear again on BBC iPlayer. In this extract from Winton Dean's magisterial Handel's Operas 1726-1741, he looks at the early history of the opera:

Handel finished Act I on 14 January 1730, the whole opera on 6 February, and produced it at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on 24 February, with ‘the scenes and dresses all entirely new.’ The cast was:

Partenope: Anna Strada del Pò (soprano)
Rosmira: Antonia Merighi (contralto)
Arsace: Antonio Bernacchi (alto castrato)
Armindo: Francesca Bertolli (contralto)
Emilio: Annibale pio Fabri (tenor)
Ormonte: Johann Gottfried Riemschneider (bass)

There were seven performances. Nothing is known of the reception, but it must have been fairly favourable, for Handel revived Partenope in his next season on 12 December the same year, again for seven performances. There were two changes of cast, Senesino replacing Bernacchi as Arsace and Giovanni Commano replacing Riemschneider as Ormonte. Handel cut the arias ‘T’appresta forse amore’ (Commano was thought capable only of recitative), ‘Fatto è amor’, ‘La gloria in nobil alma’ (these two with their introductory recitatives) and ‘Sì scherza sì’, but gave Senesino a new aria, ‘Seguaci di Cupido’ in the last scene

Handel’s second and last revival was at Covent Garden on 29 January 1737, when according to the London Post and General Advertiser of 1 February there was ‘a great disturbance’ in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. There were four performances, with a new cast except for Strada and Bertolli, who was promoted from Armindo to Rosmira. Arsace was sung by the alto castrato Domenico Annibali, Armindo by the soprano castrato Gioacchino Conti, Emilio by the tenor John Beard, and Ormonte by the contralto Maria Caterina Negri. Apart from the need to cater for the altered pitch of Armindo and Ormonte, Handel had two objectives, to shorten the opera and to provide a substantial part for Conti. This involved reordering the balance of the work, promoting Armindo to equal prominence with Arsace, both parts being played by leading castratos. No fewer than forty-five further passages of recitative were cut, some of considerable length, necessitating many new transitions.

Four more arias disappeared and ‘T’appresta forse amore’ and ‘Sì, scherzo sì’ were restored, the latter now sung by Armindo in II.iv. Arsace’s ‘Furibondo’ was transferred to Ormonte in III.iv with a new B section text, and Emilio’s ‘La speme ti consoli’ to Armindo, likewise in III.iv, with changed pronouns and modified text (‘La speme mi consola’). Armindo received an extra aria, ‘Bramo restar’, in I.vii (where previously he had gone out without an aria), the music taken from Muzio Scevola (‘Come se ti vedrò’) with parodied words. He probably sang Emilio’s ‘Barbaro fato’ in A minor at the end of act II; the autograph contains a note to that effect, and the reassigned aria is in the performing score, but not in the libretto. Otherwise Act I ended with ‘Io ti levo’, Act II with ‘Qual farfalletta’. Armando’s two surviving 1730 arias were transposed up for Conti, ‘Voglio dire’ from E minor to B minor, ‘Non chiedo’ from d minor to F sharp minor, and higher alternatives added for him in the quartet. Whereas at the first performance Arsace had nine arias to Armindo’s three, now each had six. Emilio retained only one of his original four arias. Ormonte with two fared better as a contralto than as a bass.

Partenope enjoyed considerable if temporary success in Germany. First performed at Brunswick in February 1731, it was revived there and at neighbouring Salzthal and Wolfenbüttel a number of times in the two following years, and seems to have been considered particularly suitable for royal occasions. It graced the birthdays of the Dowager Duchess of Brunswick (Salzthal, 12 September 1731) and the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI (Wolfenbüttel, 1 October 1732), and the marriage of the future Frederick the Great of Prussia (the Crown prince) to a Brunswick princess (Hamburg, 15 June 1733). These performances were in Italian. a production at Hamburg, on 28 October 1733, the arias in Italian, the recitatives translated by Christian Gottlieb Wendt and set by Keiser, remained in the repertory for four seasons, reaching twenty two performances by 1736.

Partenope seems to have made no contribution to the current concert repertory. Handel incorporated three arias (‘Io ti levo’, ‘Non chiedo’ and ‘La gloria in nobil alma’) with parodied texts in his pasticcio Oreste (December 1734), and Conti sang the last-named in the December 1736 revival of Poro. ‘Io seguo sol fiero’, equipped with a second pair of horns, reappeared as the finale of the Concerto a due cori no. 3 in F (the ‘Concerto in Judas Maccabaeus’) in 1747. The overture featured in a Manchester subscription Concert on 28 May 1745.

Readers may be interested to know that, due to popular demand, the Boydell Press will be reissuing the first volume of Handel's Operas, covering the years 1704-1726, in September. Written by Winton Dean and the late John Merill Knapp, this volume will be published in a matching hardcover edition, and a set price will also be available for those yet to discover the wonders of these long-underrated operas.

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