[Note from William: I attended both the first and fourth performances of the San Francisco Opera production of “Partenope”. The following remarks supplement those of the original review at Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope” – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 2014.]
In my first review of the San Francisco Opera’s presentation of Christopher Alden’s production of Handel’s “Partenope” I highlighted some of its various elements and praised performances of the six cast members.
The opera’s plot has the feeling of an Elizabethan romantic comedy (or farce). Rosmira (Daniela Mack) is determined to force a would-be husband who jilted her to make good on his promises. Much like Donna Elvira pursuing Don Giovanni, Rosmira chases after Arsace, but Rosmira takes a different tack. She dresses as a man who pretends to become a rival suitor for the affections of the woman of whom Arsace is enamored.
[Below: Daniel De Niese as Partenope; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
But she (or, more properly, the man who she is disguised as) and Arsace are not the only suitors for the hand of Partenope (Danielle De Niese). Shy Armindo (Anthony Roth Costanzo) and Partenope’s traditional enemy from a neighboring land, Emilio (Alec Shrader) also would want to win Partenope’s hand.
Rosmira, in her male disguise, challenges Arsace to a duel. Much of the opera’s comedy revolves around preparations for such an event. But Arsace, who has figured out that his rival is indeed his former betrothed, makes a counter-demand. That the duel be fought bare-chested. When Rosmira refuses, Partenope’s pressure and Arsace’s change of heart result in all agreeing to a double wedding, Arsace to Rosmira, and Partenope to Armindo, whose shy devotion has impressed her.
[Below: Arsace (David Daniels, below, left, in blue suit) snuggles with Partenope (below, right) as Rosmira disguised as a man (Daniela Mack, above, in green suit) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Staging a Centuries Old Comedy
The Metropolitan Opera has created something of a sensation by reviving the idea of a pastiche opera in which arias that various baroque era composers wrote for other works are appropriated for a different story.
There is a bit of the spirit of a pastiche in Christopher Alden’s mixture of the Handel’s mesmerizing arias from 1730, of the surrealist-inspired sets and costumes representing a Parisian salon soon after the Great War.
[Below: Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The war of the sexes is equipped with World War One symbols. As Partenope’s salon guests play at cards, she hands out vintage gas masks. A spiked Prussian helmet is a joke prop.
[Below: Partenope (Danielle De Niese, left) poses as the members of her salon play at cards, seated left to right, Ormonte (Philippe Sly), Armindo (Anthony Roth Costanzo), Arsace (David Daniels) and Rosmira (Daniela Mack); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The Second Time Around
Seeing and hearing the Handel’s mesmerizingly melodious arias sung a second time by this cast proved equally satisfying.
The big arias that I refer to as the showstoppers – vibrant, upbeat melodies more often than not staged with athletic high jinks – continued to charm San Francisco audiences.
[Below: Emilio (Alec Shrader) makes shadow figures of animals; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
During both evenings the most sustained ovations occurred after Alek Shrader’s Emilio sings Anch’ Io pugnar sapro, but, if there was a meter recording audience response, its needle would have jumped when Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Armindo sings and tap dances Non chiedo o luce vaghi and Daniela Mack’s Rosmira sings her jealousy aria.
The show-stoppers themselves were well worth the investment of the evening. Memorable those these manic moments are, every aria is beautiful and beautifully sung.
[Below: Danielle De Niese as Partenope; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Daniels as Arsace has four plaintive ballads as he sorts through his emotions to decide that whatever his momentary attraction to Partenope, it is really Rosmira to which his heart belongs.
In the title role, De Niese was a delight, enlisting her lyric coloratura soprano to develop a character who knows how to control men.
[Below: Ormonte (Phillippe Sly) decides he is happier wearing a woman’s dress and jewelry; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Modern Day Handel Performances
Handel’s operas abound in beautiful melodies, most often with elaborate vocal ornamentation. Because they, like the operas of the early 19th century triad of “bel canto” composers – Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – had gained a reputation as lightweight plots designed to string together arias that display the talents of vocal virtuosi, they vanished from the standard repertory.
But Handel operas, unlike those of the early 19th century Italian composers had a much greater strike against them. All of them contained major roles written for castrati, men who were forced to undergo surgery as boys to keep their voices in the range of sopranos and mezzo-sopranos.
Since by the end of the 18th century, no further castrati were created, the elaborate methods of training their voices disappeared.
The emergence of counter-tenors of such vocal technique as Daniels and Costanzo singing roles that were written for the castrati voices provides a way to restore these beautiful scores for presentation to 21st century audiences.
Handel’s 1730 libretto for “Partenope” was a rework of a previous libretto written several decades earlier, and that older libretto is based on a story from an even earlier time.
Obviously, Christopher Alden’s staging is one of an infinite numbers of ways an old story can be told to a different era, but this one works. It’s fun. It entertains, and the singing is glorious.