‘Partenope” has never been seen on any list of Handel’s greatest hits. Since its debut in 1730, in fact, it’s hardly been seen at all. Its initial modest success at London’s King’s Theatre was followed by a disastrous Covent Garden revival in 1737. It didn’t resurface till the 20th century, and then sporadically; its first-ever performance in Italy took place in 2009.
You can blame its unpopularity on the soap-operaish plot, which climaxes with a stripped-to-the-waist duel between two of the male protagonists — one of whom is actually a woman. But there’s nothing wrong with Handel’s music, and it was exciting to hear most of the opera (uncut, it would run over three hours) from Boston Baroque and its artistic director, Martin Pearlman, Saturday at Jordan Hall.
The performance was superbly conceived, conducted, played, sung, and acted. Amanda Forsythe was a flirtatious Queen Partenope, who has just founded the city of Naples and is now looking for a husband. Forsythe can be strident at the top of her range, but her voice has power and great emotional color and was meltingly beautiful in her ode to the “dear walls” of her city. Owen Willetts was by turns exultant and ambivalent as her chosen suitor, Greek prince Arsace — that’s because Arsace jilted his first love, Cypriote princess Rosmira, to pursue Parten-ope, and now there has arrived in Naples a stranger, Eurimene, whom he recognizes as his old flame in disguise. Willetts boasts a robust countertenor; his “Ch’io parta?” plea to Rosmira was the evening’s vocal highlight.
Kirsten Sollek was a resolute Rosmira, seemingly bent on revenge but really out to get Arsace back; her highlight was her “huntress” aria at the end of the first act, accompanied by the orchestra’s intrepid natural horns. David Trudgen brought a light, pleasing countertenor to bashful Armindo, the other Greek prince, who in the end wins Partenope’s hand; Aaron Sheehan as yet another of the queen’s suitors, Emilio from neighboring Cumae, shone in his final aria, where Emilio consoles himself that he still has a noble spirit.
Pearlman’s conducting was, as usual, crisp but not mechanical, and unusually yielding in “Ch’io parta?” And the cast gave full weight to the comic undercurrent. As Partenope sang her “butterfly” aria, Arsace, Eurimene, and Emilio all placed bangles on her wrist; then she pulled a long pearl necklace from Armindo’s jacket; finally she sidled up to Pearlman (who didn’t miss a beat), as if to ask whether he didn’t have something bright and shiny for her in his tailcoat. If they had been around in 1730, Handel would have had a hit on his hands.