Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Partenope 3 Prom 4 Andreas Scholl Handel

Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Concertus Copenhagen may not be household names in Britain, but they are well respected in European baroque circles. So if the Royal Albert Hall audience was surprisingly sparse, the enthusiasm of those who were there made up for lack of numbers.

Handel’s Partenope has been performed at least three times this year already – at the ENO and then in Vienna at Theater an der Wien, the lively, innovative alternative to the Vienna Opera. The Vienna performance was broadcast recently by BBC Radio 3 as part of its cycle of Handel operas. Each version has been dramatically different, demonstrating just how much potential there is in this opera, and how it remains as pointed now as it did 200 years ago.

Concertus Copenhagen did Partenope, with the same cast, in Denmark recently. As the BBC Proms programme states, it was filmed and will soon be available on DVD. Given this vivid performance, it will be something to watch out for.

The Royal Albert Hall is anything but a good place for baroque opera, which benefits from smaller, more enclosed spaces. Indeed, during the First Act, the ensemble seemed to be feeling their way, rather than demonstrating their obvious fluency. Rehearsals in this vast barn of an auditorium are no preparation for the real thing, because dynamics change completely when the building is filled, and sound is cushioned by the presence of an audience. Technicians may explain it more accurately, but I kept hearing reverberations bounce off the back walls, creating a bizarre echo effect. This strange “stereo” varied frequently, so it must have been difficult for the performers to anticipate and overcome. Fortunately, on the rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3, the balances have been resolved.

Conducting from the harpsichord with expansive gestures, Mortensen creates an energetic realization. If at times, it seemed a little rough and ready, this was an advantage, for it added to the sense of immediacy and drama. In Handel’s time, music wasn’t polished or precious, but lively and direct. Handel audiences didn’t listen with timers and scores, looking for demerits. If Mortensen’s pace was spirited, it felt right as drama.

Mortensen respected significant details, like the two horns in Act One, calling attention on several levels, heralding the natural trumpet that solos in the Third Act. Where Mortensen speeds things up it’s well judged. This in itself is an insight. Singers nowadays are far more technically adept then they were in Handel’s time. They can sing difficult passages with such fluency they don’t sound rushed. Handel was writing long before singers had the training they have today, so they can cope with challenges. Vivacity of expression is what counts above all, in musical drama.

As Partenope, Inger Dam-Jensen looked lovely, in a gown of gold. She’s much underrated as a singer. Partenope allows her to sing florid flourishes, which she carries off with majesty. Nonetheless, Partenope, the Queen adored by countless admirers, is no airhead. She commands in battle and has the sense to pick Armindo for her spouse, rather than the flashy Arsace. Dam-Jensen’s Partenope is thoughtfully down to earth, despite the giddiness around her.

The presence of countertenor superstar Andreas Scholl alone would have made this Prom a success. Good as the other singers are, he’s in an altogether more elevated league. Unlike some others in his fach, his countertenor sounds completely masculine and natural. Even at the top of his register he’s fluid, completely unforced. Again this matters, as Arsace is packed with enough testosterone to attract strong women like Partenope and Rosmira. Again and again, Scholl produces tours de force which express character as well as vocal fireworks. “Furibondo spira il vento” he sings at the end of the second act “e sconvolge il Cielo e ‘l suol.” It really does feel like we’ve been shaken by a force of nature.

Scholl can act, too, camping up his lines with witty glee. Arsace isn’t a straight man but a caricature, not quite the hero he plays at being, so Scholl’s acting expresses the humour in the character. Yet Scholl’s Arsace is capable of genuine tenderness and depth. Witness his duets with Rosmira (Tuva Semmingsen), extremely beautiful and sensitive.

Tuva Semmingsen is fairly young, but is definitely a singer to keep following. She portrays Rosmira as resourceful and determined, with enough richness in her voice to hint at deeper levels of personality. Semmingsen’s contralto is rich without being cloying, with a firm center. What lies ahead for her ? She has a future and not just in novel things like singing in the soundtrack for Lars von Trier’s controversial new film, Antichrist. She’s singing at Glyndebourne this year, too, something to look forward to.

Christophe Dumaux’s Armindo was also impressive. For any counter tenor to compete with Andreas Scholl, he has to be. His voice is well-controlled and has lasting promise. If some of the other singing was at times unsteady, perhaps it was the shock of singing at the Royal Albert Hall, where even the best have to adjust to the gargantuan dynamics.

Original is HERE
Please see descriptions of the ENO and Vienna productions under "Handel" at right
photo credit : Eric Larrayadieu
Prom 7 review is done (Purcell Fairy Queen, Glyndebourne) is done and will be up online tonight.

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