Vienna's Theater an der Wien scores another hit with 'Partenope'


June 18, 2010 Updated Feb 25, 2009 at 3:10 AM EDT

When it comes to the operas of Georg Friedrich Haendel (1685-1759) -- or George Frideric Handel if you're anglophone -- you can be forgiven for mixing up your "Ariodantes" with the "Rinaldos" or "Xerxes".

All of the eponymous heroes or heroines of the composer's 42 operas have funny-sounding names that are difficult to remember.

In line with the practice of the period, Handel sometimes recycled music from one opera to the next.

The flimsy plots can be preposterously long and convoluted, and in many cases merely an excuse to string a number of arias together to showcase a particular singer or singers.

Admittedly, among the thousands of arias that Handel composed, there is arguably some of his most glorious music. But it's still little wonder that only a handful of his operas are performed in their entirety nowadays.

Nevertheless, there are a few gems waiting to be discovered. And, to mark the 250th anniversary of Handel's death this year, Vienna's "Theater an der Wien" opera house has uncovered the lesser-known "Partenope", unveiling its brand-new production on Sunday.

The plot is hardly worth mentioning: the eponymous heroine, the queen of Naples, is wooed by three different suitors -- the lovesick Armindo, the red-blooded Emilio, and Arsace, whose jilted former lover Rosmira comes to exact her revenge.

Rosmira provides the catalyst for the action by disguising herself as a man, Eurimene, so that she can sneak into Partenope's palace and spoil Arsace's romance with the queen.

In his wryly intelligent reading, Lebanese-born director Pierre Audi deftly transposes the action from Roman times to our own, making Partenope a wealthy woman of leisure, who wiles away her time in her modernist glass-and-concrete home with her various lovers and hangers-on.

Audi's Partenope is a thoroughly modern woman, a little bored by life and somewhat fickle in her affections. She has a personal trainer for her daily jog and massage, she experiments in a little soft sadomasochism with Arsace and she stages a paintball battle against Emilio.

German soprano Christine Schaefer was perfect in the title role, sveltely elegant, but never icy.

US countertenor, David Daniels, excelled as the weak-willed Arsace, full-voiced, but nimble and agile in the treacherous coloratura.

German countertenor, Matthias Rexroth, was almost as good in the other "castrato" role of Armindo, even if he could not quite match Daniels in terms of tonal beauty.

Although the role of Emilio is a rather thankless one, US tenor Kurt Streit was suitably lithe and virile in his motorbiker's garb; and Austrian baritone Florian Boesch was excellent as Partenope's right-hand man Ormonte, who, at least in Audi's reading, has a gay crush on Armindo.

But it was Dublin-born mezzo Patricia Bardon who was the secret star of the evening, burning with a white-heat passion as the jilted Rosmira/Eurimene.

In the pit, the excellent period band, Les Talens Lyriques under their conductor Christophe Rousset, provided deft and pithy accompaniment.

"Partenope" runs at the Theater an der Wien until March 6.

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