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'Partenope': The Quirky Side of G. F. Handel

There are certain creative artists whose names seem exclusively tied to deadly serious work. In the movie world, Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind. The legendary director of thrillers and shockers such as Notorious, Psycho and The Birds wasn't famous for his funny bone.

Still, even Hitchcock came up with at least one film that could legitimately be called a comedy. It's his 1955 effort The Trouble with Harry, featuring a group of innocent townsfolk, so generous and big-hearted that they vie to accept guilt for a murder that never took place.

When it comes to opera, there are any number of composers with equally serious reputations — including George Frideric Handel, who made his fame in London in the 1700s. Like fans of popular movie directors today, 18th-century opera lovers followed Handel's work eagerly, wondering what each new piece might bring. What they seldom wondered was whether those new dramas would be serious or comic. There wasn't much question about that.

Handel worked in a genre now called "opera seria" — meaning "serious opera." His theatrical world was filled with epic, emotional struggles: tragic heroes dealing with life-threatening dilemmas; doomed lovers saying their final goodbyes.

Like Hitchcock, however, Handel also had his lighter side, and he showed it off in 1730, with a quirky yet richly-scored comic opera called Partenope. Its story revolves around two resourceful women. One is a ditzy queen with a trio of hapless lovers. The other is a jilted bride in search of the guy who dumped her. She shows up disguised as a man, and maintains the ruse until she's forced to decide between revealing her identity and exposing herself — literally.

The opera's premiere, in 1730, was at best a modest success, and even now it's not among Handel's most familiar or popular operas. But it does feature several of the composer's most intriguing characters and some of his finest and most expressive music.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Partenope from the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna. The stars are soprano Christine Schaefer as Queen Partenope and contralto Patricia Bardon as Rosmira, the cross-dresser, with countertenor David Daniels as the dashing knight caught between the two women. Also featured are conductor Christophe Rousset and the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, renowned for their performances of Baroque opera.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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