Doing the Proms Plus for Handel's Partenope on Sunday was a most enjoyable experience. Sharing ideas about the opera not just with the ever-knowledgeable Catherine Bott, but also with the evening's conductor, Lars Ulrik Mortensen, and with a lively and engaged audience was a terrific privilege. I was particularly interested to note Lars Ulrik's take on characterisation in the opera, because while Handel's contemporaries viewed it as a bit of fun, and the recent ENO production treated it as so nonsensical that they gave it a Dada-ist theme, Lars Ulrik thought the characters each underwent subtle and serious transformation during the opera, learning something new about themselves. This, to me, sounded like classic descriptions of more 'serious' Handel operas - Rodelinda, say, or Tamerlano - or indeed of nineteenth-century opera. (And also descriptions I have a bit of a beef with for Handel - but I'll come back to that.)
I was intrigued to see how Lars Ulrik's view might be reflected in the performance. Sure enough, it was there in spades. Tuva Semmingsen as Rosmira, in particular, showed considerable subtlety in her portrayal of the conflicted former lover of Arsace, constantly wrestling with her desire to punish her beloved (her singing was just beautiful too - full of light and shade, and the most sophisticated ornamentation of da capos and cadenzas I've heard in a long time). Andreas Scholl's Arsace was also well characterised (though he really struggled to fill the Albert Hall's vast space, and consequently didn't always sound as well as he might have done).
But what really struck me was how Lars Ulrik (or the theatrical director) had manipulated the opera in order to make it into the semi-tragic, developmental drama he had described in the Proms Plus talk. Cuts, of course, are just about inevitable with Handel opera, but what one chooses to cut can be telling. It was particularly noticeable in the third act that what had been cut was the emotional flippancy: a recitative scene in which Rosmira plays with Arsace, pretending she no longer loves him and describing herself as a 'farfalletta' (a butterfly) went, and so too (more strangely) did Partenope's final aria, 'Sì, scherza, sì' in which she describes love as 'two-faced'. In its place was a duet for Partenope and Armindo, 'Per le porte del tormento', which was borrowed from Sosarme without (to my knowledge) any historical authority for doing so. Clearly, the aim was to heighten the emotional believability of Partenope's and Armindo's union at the end of the opera, after Partenope had abruptly returned the two-timing Arsace to Rosmira. All in all, through careful cuts and clever characterisation, Lars Ulrik and his company had turned Partenope into something that was (by our standards) emotionally 'believable', but at some cost to the original drama.
Although I found this approach a surprise, it was certainly an enjoyable one. Aside from anything else, the singing was generally excellent (only Andreas Scholl was really under par, I felt), and the orchestral playing wonderfully imaginative. But I did wonder whether this 'psychological' approach to the opera didn't rather misrepresent the eighteenth-century understanding of the story, and of dramatic characterisation in general. Lars Ulrik's belief in the psychological development of characters wasn't one that became an important part of characterisation until the late eighteenth century. I don't think we should have a problem with (effectively) modernising an operatic plot so it makes sense on our terms, just provided we're clear that that's what we're doing...