A strong queen is pursued by two lovers in her court. As she contemplates her choice, an unknown third suitor arrives, secretly the abandoned former mistress of the queen’s current favourite, disguised as a man and intent on revenge. A fourth suitor next comes knocking on the door, certain of victory, but accompanied by his army just in case... Partenope is a perfect comic storm of seduction, jealousy, fidelity and infidelity, gender-bending and downright skulduggery, anchored in the sharp human tension of true love. Many of these tropes are familiar Handel fare, but Partenope is set apart by the unnerving genuineness of its emotional dynamics, which ripple and transform from scene to scene, as the game of love grows ever more serious – even dangerous – before a clever, slightly naughty final trick brings home love’s final triumph. Director Christopher Cowell exploits this opera’s innate human interest with warm dramatic instincts in a vivid, joyful and thoroughly entertaining production for Iford Arts.

Cowell’s fresh English translation of Stampiglia’s libretto inhabits the crisp rhythms of Handel with natural, direct elegance, allowing this complex plot to unfold clearly and convincingly, supported by superb diction and fine acting across his young, talented cast. The action moves smoothly and continuously around the central playing space, ensuring no side of the audience is neglected, and constantly re-engaging our attention with new visual angles in an endlessly developing tableau. Holly Piggott’s design bedecks the stone cloister with flowering creepers and palms, suggesting a palatial, timeless interior while channelling Iford’s own magical garden setting. The ever-present central well becomes an upholstered circular divan, ideal for lovers to loll upon (or hide around), with a marble centre which itself becomes a locus for physical comedy, soon bearing the marks of Rosmira’s furious sword and other weapons.

Costumes point to the heady glamour of the 1970s: sober suits for servants, lusciously kaleidoscopic silk shirts for our lovers, punk costumes with leather gilets and spikes for Emilio and his Cumaean troops, and immaculate gilt-braided uniforms for Partenope’s officers. Emilio is savagely resplendent in strong eyeliner, while Partenope sports a sculptural beehive under her crown. In the crucial, demandingly sophisticated battle scene, flashes of alternating blue and red light (designed by Matt Cater) whisk us from faction to faction. Meanwhile, unhappy lover Arsace eventually resorts to slurping rosé (and sleeping pills) as he nurses his bruised heart in silk pyjamas, all his romantic successes having come back to bite him at once. The production exudes playful power, with verbal quips and asides scattered across the score, creating a believable human world in which love and power literally equate as all characters vie for the queen’s favour.

Partenope rises and falls above all by its two central female characters, here each stunningly well portrayed by Galina Averina as a fiery, charismatic Partenope and Beth Margaret Taylor as an unquenchably vengeful Rosmira. Averina’s strong, silken soprano is well up to the challenge of the title role, unfailingly nimble and accurate across Handel’s virtuosic writing, and her character portrayal is brilliantly plastic, alternating between regal determination, kittenish flirtation and an amused, maternal authority over her warring suitors. As Eurimene, the disguised Rosmira, Taylor’s thrilling mezzo-soprano has astonishing depth and power which she uses across a palette of remarkable dramatic effects, singing with smooth, compelling energy but also able to shade her voice with whispers or growls, or allowing a near-shout to reach us through a note of anger: Taylor’s ambitiously risk-taking performance was at all times commanding, generally extremely successful, and thoroughly exciting to watch. Two genuine talents in the making, each capably displaying the inner conflict of their characters.  

Alexander Simpson’s louche Arsace is hilariously camp in the first half, Arsace clearly relishing his unstoppable attractiveness, but becoming more brittle as Rosmira haunts his new life with increasing venom. Simpson finds more emotional gravitas and significantly more interest in the second act, settling both characterisation and his clear countertenor to discover plangent lyricism for “What a torment” as Arsace finally realises that the love he needs is true affection, not adulation. Tom Scott-Cowell’s puppyish, slightly goofy Armindo (the gawky hero who, when everyone else gets their swords for battle, returns armed with a cricket bat) is a gentle, confident and humourous presence on stage, ably across Armindo’s music with his light and appealing countertenor. Jorgé Navarro-Colorado’s arresting stage presence makes for a memorably striking Emilio; the only thing hard to believe about him is that Partenope wouldn’t ditch silly little Arsace in favour of such a magnificent general, blessed with a light, flexible and remarkably warm tenor. Brendan Collins’ poised major-domo Ormonte is an accomplished piece of acting and singing, not beyond a little ad-libbing during a protracted mid-act retuning session from Contraband, our mellifluous orchestra conducted with skill and verve by Christopher Bucknall.

Another masterful, sprightly and unstuffily fun production to add to Iford’s canon of Handel success.