A Witty, Colorful, Extravagant Partenope

United StatesUnited StatesHandel, Partenope: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of San Francisco Opera, Julian Wachner (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 24.10.2014 (HS)

Danielle de Niese (Partenope), Philippe Sly (Ormonte), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo), David Daniels (Arsace) and Daniela Mack (Rosmira).
Danielle de Niese (Partenope), Philippe Sly (Ormonte), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo), David Daniels (Arsace) and Daniela Mack (Rosmira).©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Partenope: Danielle De Niese
Rosmira: Daniela Mack
Arsace: David Daniels
Emilio: Alek Shrader
Armindo: Anthony Roth Costanzo
Ormonte: Philippe Sly

Director: Christopher Alden
Set Designer: Andrew Lieberman
Costume Designer: Jon Morrell
Production originally created for English National Opera (2008) and Opera Australia

A Händel opera can be a daunting proposition for those accustomed to the more varied and emotionally lifted styles of operas that came later. But plenty of examples can prove that there’s a lot more to Händel than one aria in “A-B-A” form, repeated several times with increasing ornamentation. The music can get to an emotional truth while it entertains with every-increasing roulades and complexity, not to mention the unusual sound of a counter tenor (or two) accompanied by light orchestration that relies on harpsichords, theorbos and the occasional splash of musical color from valveless horns and oboes.

Partenope may not have as many memorable arias as, say, Giulio Cesare or Xerxes, but it has its musical charms. For the San Francisco Opera, an impressive cast did justice to every musical gesture while gamely, inventively—and often effectively—using their bodies in unexpected ways in director Christopher Alden’s blithely surreal production.

First seen in 2008 at English National Opera, this staging updates the complicated comedic plot from the city-state of Naples to a salon in 1920s Paris. Instead of the queen’s chambers, it’s set in the salon of a louche socialite who likes to surround herself with artists. Everyone, to put it bluntly, has the hots for someone.

The original version revolves around a love affair gone wrong between two visitors to Queen Partenope, the founder of Naples—Arsace (prince of Corinth, and the queen’s current lover) and the mysterious Eurimene, who is actually Rosmira in disguise, intent on avenging her bitter breakup with Arsace. To complicate matters, the two other men are there to pursue the queen—Emilio (prince of Comae, who has brought his army with him to back up his intent to marry her) and the painfully shy Armindo (prince of Rhodes, who can’t bring himself to declare his love to the queen). And then there’s Ormonte, the queen’s major domo.

Updating all this to a social circle in Paris—one mad for artists who push the envelope of propriety—fits the plot and opens the door to a panoply of physical shtick inspired by the excesses of surrealist art. As Emliio, tenor Alec Shrader dons a Man Ray mask and wanders the stage photographing the other participants. As Rosmira/Eurimene, mezzo soprano Daniela Mack performs a sort of strip tease taunting Emilio. As Armindo, counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sings arias without missing a note as he crawls up a spiral staircase, dangles from the edge in homage to the silent film comic actor Harold Lloyd, climbs through a water closet transom and, in Act III, tap dances, complete with top hat and cane. Bass-baritone Philip Sly emerges as Partenope’s exuberantly gay pal, at one point serving as a duelist, clad in a pink frock with an extra-wide bustle.

As Partenope, soprano Danielle De Niese sings her arias while showing off her tightly clothed form clubbing onto tables, chairs and, at one point, astride Arsace. As played by counter tenor David Daniels, he’s the one character who avoids physical histrionics.

All of this could have sent the proceedings way over the top, and for some fuddy-duddies no doubt it did. But the audience, in the fourth of six performances, lapped it up. And none of the shenanigans affected the music, with refined and idiomatic Baroque singing all around. The orchestra offered refreshingly unmannered playing led by conductor Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts at New York City’s Trinity Wall Street, where he conducts both the contemporary and Baroque orchestras.

The standouts for me were Costanzo and Mack. Both delivered their arias with eye-opening precision, brilliantly executed coloratura and clear, pure sound, while creating flesh-and-blood characters that often touched our deepest emotions. Daniels sang languid laments with his customary panache and beautiful tone, and served as a center of gravity to the loopiness around him. Shrader poured out unforced fioratura in a silvery tenor, and threw himself into a surreal characterization. Sly handled his two arias with such aplomb it left some of us wishing he had more to do.

That leaves De Niese. Opening-night reviews were not all kind to her, but in this performance she had total command of the stage and, if her Baroque technique lacked the precision of some of the other cast members, the molten copper sound of her voice and the unrestrained sexuality of her presence created a character that believably could create a band of followers in thrall to her.

As with any true comedy, the plot wraps up with everyone paired off with the “right” partner—in this case gay, straight and painfully shy. The combination of exuberant staging, fearless singing and sprightly playing produced enough fizz to keep 3-1/2 hours of Händel’s more genial music sailing along. Who couldn’t smile?

Harvey Steiman

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