Adrian Jack is bemused by a 1930s night-club setting for Handel

opera Partenope, Lyric, London
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The Independent Culture
Midsummer Opera usually plays in a garden in Ealing. This week, for its 10th anniversary, it has brought Handel's Partenope to the Lyric for three nights. The theatre's quite cool, but in sweltering weather, it felt like rather a long evening - three hours with one interval and a few minutes' pause before Act 3. Handel's operas are about singing: you lose count of the arias in Partenope and many of them are terrific, but not all the singing here quite matched their quality, and the opera's satirical element was obscured by the harmless modernisation of the staging and the colloquial English translation by Rosemary Barnes.

This tale of sexual rivalry has been set by the producer Alan Privett in a 1930s night-club, with an awful lot of cumbersome art deco wooden furniture that is moved about and up-ended for the cast to climb or lean on, sometimes at their peril.

There's also a lot of busy diversion to take our minds off the fact that a couple of lines are made to stretch two or three minutes. That may be all very well when Partenope is given a massage and finds all sorts of interesting positions and facial expressions of pleasure and pain. But the choreographed routines are too tentative, until Arsace's final aria in Act 3 is turned into a jazz number, arranged by David Gordon, with everyone dancing like Fred Astaire. It was genuinely surprising and charming, and almost made up for the feebleness of the rest.

Handel wrote the part of Arsace for the celebrated castrato Senesino. It's taken here by the feisty counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton. He looks like an uppity urchin with a nasty smell in his nostrils, but rises to the demands of his florid aria closing Act 2 with bravura.

Marilyn Hill Smith as Partenope looks like Ginger Rogers plumping up nicely as Mae West, and she sings robustly and always dead in tune. She also has a real comic gift and plays flat out for good-natured vulgarity. Pierre Sciama, the other counter-tenor, is her effectively coy and wimpish suitor; Ian Caddy, as her major-domo, the only "real man". Jenny Miller, as Arsace's abandoned girlfriend disguised as a man, cannot be faulted for looking uncomfortable, and she relaxed convincingly when transformed in the revelatory final scene; but her dark mezzo voice sounded ill at ease. David Skewes as Emilio, the local mafioso seemed a natural comic actor and was admirably clear with his words.

No one needed to force their voice, for the band played period instruments, with David Roblou directing. From time to time, he splashed out with a fair degree of panache, and both counter-tenors ventured some stylish cadenzas. despite which, the show is designed to amuse an easy-going audience and not to be too severely scrutinised.

Ends tonight. Booking: 0181-741 2311