Saturday, October 25, 2014

San Francisco Opera: Handel's Partenope

Danielle De Niese as Partenope. Photos by Cory Weaver.

October 21, 2014

Those concerned about the relevance of opera in the 21st century should see this English/Australian production, in which director Christopher Alden took a lesser-known baroque opera and gave it such a wildly imaginative treatment that it won an Olivier Award for Best New Production. The Olivier Award is the British equivalent of a Tony. A theater award. For a baroque opera.

What Alden and cohorts apparently saw beneath the melismas and da capos was a story, based on Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, that presents a bracingly intimate buffet of the several combinations of power and love. As a Pat Benatar song, it would be “Love is a Battlefield.” Indeed, the actual physical battles of the original story are transformed into sexual face-offs, which is really what they were to begin with.

A quick sketch of the action would reveal the queen, Partenope, as the target of three suitors: the aggressive Emilio, the meek Armindo, and the moderate Arsace. The initial winner is Arsace, mainly because Partenope is in love with him. Naturally, there are complications.

Alden’s first stroke of genius is to remove the action from ancient Greece to 1920s Paris, and to make all the characters into members of the Surrealist art movement. This serves to make the characters more accessible to modern viewers, and to open the door to all kinds of wackiness (once you’ve played the Surrealist card, you can get away with anything). The most identifiable inspiration is Emilio, who is based on the photographer Man Ray, which leads to all kinds of visual possibilities.

Daniela Mack as Rosmira, Alek Shrader as Emilio.
The second stroke of genius is Alden’s demand that his singers – baroque virtuosi all – perform all manner of weird actions to illustrate their predicaments. Finding himself locked in a bathroom after a failed attempt at seduction, Emilio (tenor Alek Shrader) climbs to the upper window and, dangling across the opening, lights and smokes a cigarette, all without interrupting the marathon runs of his aria. The mere mention of his beloved’s name causes Armindo (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) to lose control of his limbs; he falls down a spiral staircase and, later, dangles in mid-air from the side of it, all without missing a note of his melismas. Later, when matters improve for him, he performs a song of triumph while tapdancing.

The genius of all this “stage business,” besides causing general hilarity, is that it solves a basic problem of Handel’s operas. The endless melismatic runs, invented as a show of virtuosity, are just not all that enjoyable to listen to. That’s why they didn’t make it out of the baroque era (and were replaced, in a sense, by the Rossinian patter song). The classical/romantic cadenza became a much more agreeable way to showcase a singer’s skills. In this production, the singers take the virtuosity to such a Cirque de Soleil level that the spectator has no time to feel irritated, or to worry about singers needing scuba-level breathing techniques to get through the next twelve measures.

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo.
What fares better, at least in Partenope, are Handel’s slower arias. Faced with his former lover’s refusal to forgive his sins, Arsace sings a gorgeous, yearning aria about her cruelty, revealing the exquisitely haunting quality of David Daniels’ countertenor. Playing that spurned lover, Rosmira (mezzo Daniela Mack) delivers many similarly touching passages.

The showpiece comes from soprano Danielle De Niese, who is goddess-like in every way. Wearing top hat and tails, she declares her love (and lust) for Arsace in a very public manner, indulging in Fosse-like vamps and humping her way through Handel’s rhythmic shifts, creating the sexiest performance of a baroque aria that one is likely to see. She also is very successful (with Stampiglia’s surprising libretto) in transforming Partenope from a predictable attention-whore to a full-fledged woman, pursuing the deeper bonds of soulmatehood.

The Act I set by Andrew Lieberman.
Andrew Lieberman’s sets are spectacular, and applause-inducing, particularly the stylish, blinding-white interior that opens the performance. Costume designer Jon Morrell plays off of this canvas by dressing his cast members in single-color suits, with the exception of the uber-camp servant Ormonte (Philippe Sly), whose final outfit resembles a Samurai as done by Hello Kitty. Conductor Julian Wachner, an early-music specialist making his SFO debut, is a marvel to watch, working without a baton and often seeming more like a dancer than a conductor. The effects of the period instruments are captivating, particularly the horns in Rosmira’s hunting-themed aria. The production team cut eight vocal numbers, sparing the audience from a performance that would otherwise have lasted for over four hours.

Through Nov. 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$370,, 415/864-3330.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the best-selling Amazon Kindle  novel, The Popcorn Girl.

No comments: