Amidst the myriad forms of human sexuality lies a taste for surreal, mind-altering fantasy as displayed in the photography of Man Ray, and it is this taste that infuses Christopher Alden’s ENO production of Handel’s Partenope, a work in opera seria form, but with far more comic than serious elements. Handel’s tale is of love and battle: Alden goes long on the comedy and ditches the battle element: in the louche 1920s salon created by him and by set designer Andrew Lieberman, the only battles are those of the bedroom. The invading Prince Emilio morphs into Man Ray himself, ever-present with his camera or projector. Liebermann’s sets and Jon Morrell’s costumes give us a stylish view into Partenope’s smart Bauhaus apartment, and there are visual quotes aplenty from various of Man Ray's more famous photographs. Amanda Holden’s translation, quoted as “racy” on her website, consists of a continuous stream of clever rhymes using current-era language and slang.

James Laing (Armindo) © Donald Cooper
James Laing (Armindo)
© Donald Cooper

But what if Man Ray isn’t what turns you on? If your fancy isn't taken by the erotic charge of a strategically positioned black triangle, or a prominent nipple in an expanse of flesh smoothed flat by the lens and viewpoint, or if the sight of a 1920s siren smoking through a long cigarette holder fails to excite? In that case, this production has little for you. For the first hour or so, the clever rhymes prattle along relatively amusingly, as do the gags and pratfalls (I won’t easily forget the sight of James Laing as Armindo toiling through his da capo of “Voglio dire al mio tesoro” upside down as he desperately clings on to the open steps of the spiral staircase.) But the humour’s impact gradually runs out: we are left with schoolboy gags and toilet humour (literally – the toilet plays a big part in Act II).

Matthew Durkan (Ormonte) and Patricia Bardon (Arsace) © Donald Cooper
Matthew Durkan (Ormonte) and Patricia Bardon (Arsace)
© Donald Cooper

Every Handel director must decide how to deal with da capo arias: Alden’s is to have the singers do something silly on stage during the repeat. It’s not an approach that works for me: I want a singer to focus on transforming the vocal colour so that the repeat tells a different story from the first time round, and that's hard to do when the singer is focused on stage antics.

Conductor Christian Curnyn keeps the tempo upbeat and gets the orchestra to inject plenty of brightness and verve into the music. But the tempi were sufficiently fast that all of the singers seemed to be right on the edge (or sometimes over) of their ability to keep up with the coloratura, and Handel’s semiquaver runs lose their impact if individual notes start blurring into one. Only in Act III did Curnyn relax the pace and allow a little more air, giving Patricia Bardon the breathing space to be more lyrical in Arsace’s two arias “Ch’io parta? Sì crudele” and “Ma quai note di mesti lamenti”.

Sarah Tynan (Partenope) © Donald Cooper
Sarah Tynan (Partenope)
© Donald Cooper

All six of the cast were never less than competent, but only on a few occasions did anyone rise above the ordinary: I waited in vain for one of those Handelian moments which delivers a real knock-out punch. I was most impressed by a late substitute: Rupert Charlesworth as Emilio, delivering “Barbaro Fato si” from prison with gusto and proper rage (undeterred by the fact that in this production, he is actually locked into Partenope’s toilet). In the title role, Sarah Tynan gave a sweet timbre and good intonation, but while she acted the siren well enough physically, there wasn’t enough in the voice to really seduce me. Matthew Durkan showed the best control of the coloratura in the bass role of Ormonte.

As a lightweight evening of opera, this Partenope passes by relatively pleasantly. But I had hoped for a great deal more.