About this work
Partenope and Lotario were premiered in the same opera season to balance one another. Lotario is a very conventional Italian opera seria, while Partenope is one of Handel's unusual creations. It belongs to the category of Handel's operas known as the anti-heroic. It spoofs everything about opera seria and its conventions, and derives much of its entertainment value from sexual ambiguity, suggestiveness, and double meaning. Although not an opera buffa, it definitely displays a lighter vein than Handel's other operas, and its humor is witty and sophisticated. The opera opens with an elaborate tableaux, which celebrates the founding of the city of Naples by Queen Partenope. This opens the opera with visual spectacle, ceremony, and festive music, elements which the London audiences craved. There is a beautiful someil scene in the second act, in which the hero Arsace is found asleep by Rosmira. This scene is delicately accompanied with fine attention to coloristic effects; muted strings, theorbo lute, and basses in pizzicato and then pianissimo arco provide sleepy mood music. There is also a battle scene in which Partenope, at the head of her own troops, triumphs over one of her suitors. The climax of the opera is built up throughout the third act, in which the former lover of the lead castrato male is allowed to berate and embarrass him in front of the rest of the cast of characters. She is disguised as a man, and casts aspersions on his valor and worth as a hero. She even challenges him to a duel towards the end. At his request, all participants must fight bare-chested, stripped from the waist up, and so his beloved's ruse is uncovered at last. In keeping with the comic subject matter, Handel's music is lighter than in his heroic operas, the arias are shorter, and there are more vocal ensembles in the opera, including a brief quartet in act III. Quartets were very uncommon except in opere buffe, and almost never included in any of Handel's serious operas.
The original libretto to Partenope was by Stampiglia, and Handel most likely heard the setting by Caldara when he was in Italy. His score is based on Caldara's, which was performed at the Carnival in Venice in 1708. The Stampiglia libretto was part of the library of Handel's old collaborator Niccola Haym. Although it is unknown who the author was who adapted Stampiglia's version for the London stage, Haym is a likely suspect. The scenic constructions are flexible, and the length and style of the aria writing is similar to his. There are fewer strict da capo arias, and there are elaborate stage directions, which point to the dramatic imagination of Haym.
The feminine heroine of the story is Queen Partenope, a complex woman, ruler, and lover. The lead male castrato is Arsace, an ardent lover of both Rosmira and Queen Partenope, and hopelessly confused by his infidelity to both of them. Made vulnerable by his failings, he is pursued and bullied by the woman he jilted, until in a comic turn-around, she is cornered at last. Queen Partenope on her part has three suitors as the opera opens, but by the middle, the disguised Rosmira has become a fourth. The comic situations arising from the endless deceptions keep the opera moving until its conclusion. Although an opera such as Partenope should have appealed to the tastes of a London audience in love with the ribaldry of The Beggar's Opera, it was a complete failure. The entire season was inglorious, and considered a disaster.