Music historians spend much time and effort trying to recapture the original experience of artworks that survive for us only as notes on paper. And among their hardest tasks is to explore what state of mind our ancestors would be in, in order to create an opera such as Handel’s Partenope, which has just returned to ENO in a lauded production by Christopher Alden.
Partenope is a comedy, but not as we know comedy today. Its humour wouldn’t work on TV: it’s too wry, too glancing and too convoluted. But it evidently had them rolling in the aisles during the early 18th century; and the task of latter-day directors is to give new voice to those old jokes, unlocking them for modern ears.
Alden’s solution is to recast Handel’s story of a queen choosing a husband from a cohort of unlikely suitors as a chic, surrealist vaudeville. The queen becomes a 1920s hostess, living in Art Deco splendour. And the suitors are her house guests, their appearance and behaviour based on the celebrity surrealists of the time: Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp et al.
Making a meaningful connection with the off-the-wall perversity of Handel’s text, this time shift also opens up the gender-bending craziness that 18th-century opera revels in. The suitors number a castrato role (a man singing at female pitch), a trouser role (a woman playing a man), and a woman who, as part of the plot, disguises herself as a man.
The “trans” debate has spilled over to the stage of late: one thinks of Twelfth Night, currently playing at the National Theatre. And whatever 18th-century audiences made of all that, Alden invites his audience to laugh, extending the joke to a point where all sense of gender breaks down. It’s sharply done, with a superb cast led by Sarah Tynan in the title role.
The countertenor James Laing makes a big impression as the suitor who succeeds. And specialist conductor Christian Curnyn magically transforms the company’s reduced orchestral forces into a convincing period-style ensemble.
Gender expectations again haunt the narrative of Patience, one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s more focused satires, which takes the soulful posturings of the 19th-century Aesthetic Movement (star turn: Oscar Wilde) as its specific target. There’s essentially just one joke: that a man behaving in unmanly ways – reciting poetry and waving lilies – can still pull the girls.
English Touring Opera sells you the joke as hard as possible, given contemporary sensitivities to gender issues. The staging isn’t subtle, and the camp routines repeat too often. But the cast has youthful energy.
If nothing else it makes a cheerful partner to the Tosca that it tours with.