Partenope delights with terrific singing, sprightly playing and San Francisco Opera’s surrealist staging

United StatesUnited States Handel, Partenope: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Christopher Moulds (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 15.6.2024. (HS)

Alek Shrader (Emilio) channeling photographer Man Ray © Cory Weaver/SFO

Director – Christopher Alden
Sets – Andrew Liberman
Costumes – Jon Morrell
Original lighting – Adam Silverman
Revival lighting – Gary Marder
Choreographer – Colm Seery
Chorus director – John Keene

Partenope – Julie Fuchs
Rosmira – Daniela Mack
Arsace – Carlo Vistoli
Armindo – Nicholas Tamagna
Ormonte – Hadleigh Adams
Emilio – Alex Shrader

San Francisco Opera has brought back Christopher Alden’s surrealistic and unabashedly naughty production of George Frideric Handel’s Partenope. On its opening night in the War Memorial Opera House, it once again paid big dividends musically, dramatically and comedically.

Perhaps it was programmed as counterpoint to the concurrent presentation, Kaija Saariaho’s dead-serious, emotionally wrenching Innocence (review here). Emotions do play a big role in both operas: despite a libretto centered on a pending war that threatens the new city-state of Naples, Partenope is really about the throes of love and lust.

In this production, first seen in 2008 at English National Opera, the complicated plot is updated from B.C.E. Naples, where Partenope was a fabled queen, to a salon in 1920s Paris where she is a louche socialite who surrounds herself with suitors and artists. Everyone, to put it bluntly, has the hots for her, or for someone else. Partenope may have fewer memorable arias than such Handel’s operas as Giulio Cesare or Xerxes, but it has its musical charms. This blithely surreal production had appeared in San Francisco in 2014 with an impressive cast that did justice to every musical gesture while gamely, inventively and effectively using their bodies in unexpected ways.

If anything, this revival cast topped 2014’s. Drawing superb playing from the orchestra, conductor Christopher Moulds also contributed crisply deft playing on harpsichord in a continuo with cellist Evan Kahn and theorboist Richard Savino.

French soprano Julie Fuchs made a splash in the title role. In her U.S. debut she reeled off the necessary roulades and other ornamentation with ease and deployed a voice with chameleon-like facets, sometimes regal with a hint of steel in the texture, often softening to a creamy sweetness. She was a step up from Danielle de Niese in 2014 – Fuchs sang it better. And she looked lithe and sensual in costume designer Jon Morrell’s luxe fashions.

The countertenors – New York-based Nicholas Tamagna and Torino-born Carlo Vistoli (like Fuchs making his U.S. opera debut) – need not take a back seat to the bona-fide superstars of 2014, when Anthony Roth Costanzo sang Armindo (a character painfully shy about expressing his desire for Partenope) and David Daniels portrayed Arsace (the favored suitor).

Tamagna lent a sleek, beautifully lyrical sound and superb control of trills to Armindo’s music, all the while revealing a remarkable talent for physical humor. While singing flawlessly, he crawled up a spiral staircase and dangled from the edge – in an homage to the silent film comic actor Harold Lloyd – and climbed through a water closet transom. When he finally won the girl, he tap-danced, brandishing top hat and cane.

As Arsace, Vistoli wielded the louder voice, which stood out for both its rock-solid accuracy and its suppleness. With a physical presence to match, these traits lent power to a character who spends most of the opera meshed in a triangle with another woman.

[l-r] Julie Fuchs (Partenope), Hadleigh Adams (Ormonte), Daniela Mack (disguised as Eurimene), Nicholas Tamagna (Armindo), and Carlo Vistoli (Arsace) © Cory Weaver/SFO

That other woman, who first appears disguised as a man – ‘Eurimene’, the mysterious immigrant – is revealed (to the audience at least) as Rosmira, intent on avenging a painful breakup with Arsace. Playing him/her was mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, one of two holdovers from the earlier cast, then young artists and now seasoned singers. Mack skulked around clad in a frumpy brown suit without missing a beat in the music, shaping phrases artfully, matching the countertenors from the top to bottom of her range and steadily building strength through the three acts in both physical presence and vocal agility.

American tenor Alek Shrader (Mack’s husband in real life) was the other holdover. As Emilio, his steady tenor and ease with coloratura paid dividends vocally, and he wittily encapsulated a portrayal of Partenope’s suitor (who brings along an army to back up his intentions) as the surrealist photographer Man Ray.

Lurking at the edge of many scenes, wielding a flash camera, he acts as a sort of agent provocateur to stir up the lusts and various emotional reactions among the others. At one point he watches ‘Eurimene’ strip off the green suit disguise, rearranging the clothing on the floor to photograph. He snaps away with his camera as she reveals herself to be Rosmira by stripping off the shirt and flashing Emilio. Later, as Act III proceeds, he assembles the enlarged photographs into a giant wall collage.

Completing the cast as Partenope’s major domo, Ormonte, bass-baritone Hadleigh Adams delivered the music with agile finesse and nearly stole the final scenes dressed in a flamboyant pink frock as the master of arms in a formal duel between ‘Eurimene’ and Arsace.

As with any true comedy, the plot wraps up with everyone paired off with the ‘right’ partner – gay, straight or painfully shy. The combination of exuberant staging, fearless singing and sprightly playing produced enough fizz to keep more than three hours of Handel’s genial music delightfully sailing along.

Harvey Steiman

1 thought on “<i>Partenope</i> delights with terrific singing, sprightly playing and San Francisco Opera’s surrealist staging”

  1. Nice review.

    One minor correction: It was Alex Shrader, as Emilio, who climbed through the WC window, since he had been “imprisoned” there after losing the battle for Partenope.


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