This concert performance of Handel's Partenope was the first time the piece has been presented at the Proms, although the opera is less obscure to London audiences than it could be, thanks to ENO's recent production with the dazzling Rosemary Joshua in the title role.
Although the piece is of great interest for its playful, comic take on the traditional eighteenth century opera seria form, few would argue with the assertion that the score does not compare to masterpieces like Ariodante, Alcina or Giulo Cesare. The Royal Danish Opera garnered considerable acclaim for its production of Partenope with a cast identical to the line-up in this Prom, to be released on DVD by Decca on 7 September, but in the absence of action, sets and costumes, the singers were hard pressed to match the impact which we are given to understand they made in the opera house.
In the title role, Inger Dam-Jensen captured the sparkling personality of Partenope with a delightful presence and a voice of ravishing beauty, handled with light virtuosity and taste. However, from her first aria, the perennial question of the Royal Albert Hall's suitability as a venue for performances of this repertoire was raised, because there were real issues with the audibility of the singers when accompanied by anything other than continuo in the middle and lower reaches of their ranges. It is obviously something of a moot point, since the situation has persisted for over a hundred years, but the ability of the singers to retain one's interest through the whole course of an aria in this concert was limited. All of them were similarly affected to greater or lesser extents, yet all of them also delivered the secco recitative, were there were no such issues, with clarity and imagination, showing the fruits of their hard work and experience in the staged production.
The two countertenors, Christophe Dumaux as Armindo and Andreas Scholl as Arsace, were well contrasted, although the casting may have been more successful if their roles had been reversed, since Dumaux's more glamorous, fuller timbre seemed more appropriate to Arsace than to the somewhat spineless Armindo. As Rosmira, Tuva Semmingsen had less to offer in terms of vocal colour than some other mezzos on the baroque opera circuit, but she compensated with vivid use of text and lots of character in her deportment. Bo Kristian Jensen as Emilio was more successful as the hopeless lover than the heroic war leader, let down by a lack of precision in his coloratura.
Concerto Copenhagen, also known as CoCo, apparently, played with spirited brilliance under the direction from the harpsichord of Lars Ulrik Mortensen. The tempi were well judged, only occasionally swaying too far towards the perhaps excessive speed that can afflict some modern 'authentic' performances. Mortensen displayed a vivid imagination, and allowed the score to resound naturally, whilst nevertheless imposing some pleasing expressive touches which made it very much his own interpretation. It is true that he could probably have gone some way towards ameliorating the balance between the orchestra and the voices, but it is questionable how much this would have helped in this acoustic, and whether the loss of the full-blooded sonority with which CoCo played would have been worth it.
As with all the Proms, the performance is available on the BBC website's Radio 3 'listen again' section for a short period, and it is interesting to note how much better the performance comes across on this medium. There is no hint of the audibility or balance issues, and some of the arias, particularly from Scholl, are spell-binding. Nevertheless, one must review the performance as it was experienced live, and unfortunately, the high quality efforts of these first-rate artists struggled to come across as well as they might have.
By John Woods
Photo: Inger Dam-Jensen by Isak Hoffmeyer