Handel – Partenope
Arsace – Lawrence Zazzo
Partenope – Karina Gauvin
Emilio – John Mark Ainsley
Armindo – Emőke Baráth
Rosmira – Kate Aldrich
Ormonte – Victor Sicard
Il Pomo d’oro / Maxim Emelyanychev
Koninklijk Theater Carré, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Sunday, January 17th, 2016.
For a few hours this afternoon Amsterdam really was Handel-Centraal with the Amsterdam premiere of Ariodante that I saw in Aix-en-Provence 2 years ago and this concert performance of Partenope. Today’s performance was part of a promotional European tour undertaken by Il Pomo d’oro and their new music director, Maxim Emelyanychev, following the release of a recording of the work featuring many of today’s principals. Partenope isn’t the most widely performed of Handel’s operas and we were very lucky to have Lawrence Zazzo take over the role of Arsace at very short notice. This was my first time at the Koninklijk Theater Carré and it really is a beautiful venue. The theatre specializes in musicals but occasionally hosts appearances by the Nationale Reisopera and other independent promoters and it strikes me as a pleasant venue in which to see opera. Unfortunately, the program book wasn’t well edited – Kate Aldrich’s name was mis-spelt, in two different ways, and the printed libretto contained a number of typos.
Today marked one of Emelyanychev’s first appearances with the orchestra since his appointment. His conducting focused on languor and gave us a relaxed amble through the score. At times, he secured some ravishing playing from the band, at others it felt lacking in dynamism to push the drama forward. On the recording, we have Il Pomo d’oro’s previous music director Riccardo Minasi conducting and the differences could not be more apparent. There Minasi paces the work ideally with genuine rhythmic incisiveness giving us an energy that was lacking today despite the excellence of the orchestra and the singing.
It goes without saying that Karina Gauvin’s Partenope was a paragon of Handelian stylishness. In many ways it feels that she was born to sing the role. Even in concert she had a regal bearing combined with a witty sense of humour that was ideal for the character. Her soprano has splendid velvety plushness, the tone warm and the coloratura – once her opening aria was out of the way – always absolutely spot on. For me the highlight was her Act 2 aria ‘voglio amare’ which perfectly encapsulated all that is glorious in Gauvin’s singing – generosity of tone, a sound that blooms wonderfully and total identification with the character.
Lawrence Zazzo was a highly impressive Arsace. Given that he had had very limited rehearsal time and had taken over at very short notice, his command of the role was absolute. He ornamented each da capo with wonderful musicality. There is a fullness of tone to his sound that is really quite remarkable and he descends to a fabulously rich bottom and rises to an easily-produced top with registers all ideally integrated. His showstopping Act 2 aria ‘furibondo spira il vento’ was staggering in its virtuosity yet it was no mere showpiece, it was full of genuine feeling marrying the notes and the text to completely illuminate his character’s situation.
Emőke Baráth brought her customary crystalline tone to Armindo. The voice isn’t huge but it’s perfectly formed and sparkles wonderfully. If John Mark Ainsley’s Emilio seemed somewhat anonymous it was no reflection on his impeccable vocalism, easy line and immaculate execution of the florid music but more due to the fact that his character in comparison seems somewhat underdeveloped. I found Kate Aldrich’s Rosmira also a little on the anonymous side for a different reason. Her singing was well-schooled, fluently dispatched and always stylistically appropriate; yet I felt her auburn mezzo lacked a wide range of tone colours that could really capitalize on all the aspects of her character’s personality and illuminate the text in this concert setting. Her singing was always musical, her command of the role was complete but – and I admit this is highly personal – it didn’t quite win me over.
Every so often when attending an opera one comes across a young artist who shows immense promise and those are the moments that really make opera-going worthwhile. That happened today with Victor Sicard’s Ormonte. His is a bright, youthful baritone with a fabulous technique. In his Act 1 aria he gave us some exhilarating gravity-defying ornamentation. His diction is impeccable and there’s that rare musicality to his singing that cannot be taught. He is undoubtedly one to watch.
Today was a somewhat unusual experience. We had tremendous singing and – apart from the odd patch of sour intonation in the strings – very good playing from a fine period instrument orchestra. Yet, there was something missing. The performance had beauty yet the musical direction didn’t quite feel driven by the text in the way that the recording is. One of the reasons for that would certainly be due to the change in conductor but also it struck me that the recitatives didn’t quite crackle with sheer dramatic energy in the way that they perhaps ideally needed too. Despite that, we had extremely impressive central performances that genuinely came to life from Gauvin and Zazzo. It was certainly worth the journey to see some truly outstanding Handelians at work and for seeing an extremely promising talent making a major impression.