PARTENOPE (HWV 27)
Libretto: After Silvio Stampiglia
First performance: 24th February 1730, King's Theatre, London
- Anna Maria Strada del Pò (Soprano)
- Antonio Maria Bernacchi (Alto-castrato)
- Antonia Maria Merighi (Contralto)
- Francesca Bertolli (Contralto)
- Annibale Pio Fabri, called "Balino" (Tenor)
- Johann Gottfried Riemschneider (Bass)
Together with her friends Partenope is enjoying a party at her villa, and the guests praise her qualities as a hostess. An unknown new guest, Rosmira, disguised as Eurimene, is invited to these celebrations by Ormonte.
Arsace is suspicious of the new guest, perplexed by the young man’s resemblance to his former fiancée. Rosmira befriends Armindo and advises him strongly to tell Partenope of his love for her. Rosmira confronts Arsace, who claims he still loves her, but she forces him to vow never to disclose her true identity.
Armindo tries to confess his love to Partenope, but fails. Rosmira embarrasses Arsace in front of everyone, but Partenope reaffirms her loyalty to him. However, he is disconcerted by Rosmira who makes it plain that she wants to disrupt his relationship with Partenope. Emilio, eager to gain the attention of Partenope, challenges her to a war game with him, involving all the others around her. Partenope is determined to prove herself against Emilio in the battle. Arsace, Armindo and Rosmira/Eurimene want to act as personal protectors of Partenope against Emilio. Arsace is worried by Rosmira’s participation in this game, whilst Armindo is confused about her, suspecting that she is a new suitor for Partenope. Rosmira/Eurimene reassures Armindo that she is no rival and is actually hunting a ‘different kind of prey’.
The war game takes place and Partenope and Emilio rally their troops. Emilio is ‘defeated’ and realizes that his chances as a suitor have seriously diminished. Rosmira embarrasses Arsace, and claims victory. Emilio bemoans the lack of success of his pursuit of Partenope. Rosmira again embarrasses Arsace in front of everyone, suggesting he might be unfaithful. He is unable to defend himself, afraid that his previous relationship will be disclosed. Partenope is shocked about Rosmira/Eurimene’s audacity, forces her to stop these accusations, but realizes that something strange is happening to Arsace.
Arsace and Rosmira continue to quarrel, and Emilio is intrigued by Rosmira’s behaviour. Armindo, gaining confidence, succeeds in expressing his love for Partenope. Because she is slightly growing suspicious of Arsace, Partenope is friendly towards him but does not offer him much hope. Rosmira asks Armindo to organize a meeting with Partenope at which she intends to reveal a secret. Alone again with Arsace, she scorns him. Arsace is torn between Partenope and Rosmira and his fear and despair confuse him more and more.
Rosmira/Eurimene reveals in public to Partenope that a certain Rosmira has sent her. Now Arsace fears a disclosure of her true identity and a subsequent end of his relationship with Partenope. But Rosmira only reveals that this Rosmira has sent her to inform Partenope about the unfaithfulness of Arsace. A devastated Partenope now accuses him of being a traitor. To solve this conflict, Rosmira/Eurimene proposes to confront Arsace in a duel, while Emilio and Armindo propose to assist the two fighters. In a last private encounter, Rosmira dismisses Arsace, who is heart-broken by the unequivocal rejection of his former lover.
Observed by Rosmira and Partenope, Arsace mentions Rosmira’s name in a nightmarish slumber. Again, both women accuse him of betrayal. Ormonte prepares everything for the final battle and the duel is about to start when Arsace, in an unexpected move, suddenly demands that Rosmira fights stripped to the waist, knowing that she cannot do this without giving up her disguise. Rosmira is confounded. Forced by everyone to give in to this request, she confesses her real identity. Partenope is shocked by this revelation and by the fact that Arsace publicly humiliated Rosmira with this confession. Should she dismiss Arsace and turn to Armindo now? Should she leave her unfaithful lover to Rosmira? And should Rosmira accept the man who betrayed her or should she take her freedom? A hymn to love is sung by Partenope and all her guests, but the party is over.
(c) Willem Bruls
After the cool reception granted Lotario, Handel’s first opera as an independent producer, he returned to an old idea for his next opera. The libretto for Partenope had been set many times and by many composers since it was orginially written by Silvio Stampiglia in 1699. It is highly likely that Handel had seen the production of Antonio Caldara’s version in Venice in 1708, and was familiar with Vinci’s 1725 version La Rosmira fedele.
Just a few years ealier, in 1726, Partenope had been considered as a possible subject for an opera featuring the ‘Rival Queens’ Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. We do not know exactly why the directors of the Royal Academy refused the libretto, but perhaps the satirical and humourous nature of the libretto did not match the taste for the heroic that had dominated Handel’s other London operas. They might also have been influenced by a letter from Owen Swiney, the man who had famously absconded with the box office takings of Teseo in 1713 and was now acting as an informal adviser to the Royal Academy. Writing to the Duke of Richmond in August 1726, Swiney said: ‘(Senesino) put me in a Sweat in telling me that Parthenope was likely to be brought on the Stage, for it is the very worst book (excepting one) that I ever read in my whole life…I’ll say no more of it, but that if ’tis to be done, ’twill bring more scandal & lesse profit, than any opera, that has been, yet, acted to the Hay-Market Theatre.’ Despite the fact that in Rosmira and Partenope the text offered perfectly balanced roles for Faustina and Cuzzoni, the Academy decided against it.
Now that he was making his own artistic decisions, Handel could return to this subject which was obviously a favourite. The version of the libretto he chose was almost identical to that used by Caldara in 1708 – perhaps he still had the published word book from that performance in his library and worked directly from it. It was only the second opera that Handel had written for London that took it’s name from the leading female character (the other being ‘Rodelinda’), which seems significant since the female characters are certainly the strongest in this opera. It has been said that Partenope is an opera with a truly modern feminist theme.
Unusually, we have no record of the reception of this opera when it was first produced in 1730. Even the reliable Mary Delaney does not seem to have mentioned it in her correspondence at the time. We do know, however, that it ran for seven performances and was sufficiently popular for Handel to revive it in December 1730 for a further seven performances, and then again in January 1737.