It’s amazing what opera singers can do these days! No more is the style to stand and deliver; now singers not only must act and sing brilliantly but they also swing from staircases, do erotic lap dances and tap loose-limbed around the stage, with top hat and cane in hand.

Danielle de Niese (Partenope) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Danielle de Niese (Partenope)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Or so it appears from San Francisco Opera’s current performance of Handel’s Partenope. Directed by the New York–based opera director Christopher Alden, this version of Partenope premiered at the English National Opera in 2008, later to be presented by the co-producer Opera Australia. The production won London’s prestigious Olivier Award for 2009.

Holden’s creative concept was to set the opera in Paris 1920s in a buoyant and vaguely Surrealist salon, home of the Queen of Naples, Partenope. The title role is sung by the luscious Danielle de Niese, who in marcelled hair and tight-fitting black lounge wear can only be accurately described as a real babe. In the first act she and her male admirers in pink, gold, green and blue suits strike poses around a card table in an all-white apartment with an elegant, long and winding staircase.

The suitors include the Prince of Rhodes Arsace, sung by countertenor David Daniels, her romantically confused love object; Armindo, countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo, her dazzled but inarticulate would-be lover; Ormonte, bass-baritone Philippe Sly, her best pal; and Rosmira, mezzo Daniela Mack, Arsace’s dumped fiancée. What? Yes, in order to exact revenge on the unfaithful Arsace, his old girlfriend, Rosmira, has disguised herself as a man and is competing with him for the love of his current lover. Ah, it’s one of those, with a plot as convoluted as the Paris catacombs and more changes in gender than underwear! Naturally it all gets sorted out in under three and a half hours, including intervals, and with several judicious cuts.

Daniela Mack (Rosmira) and David Daniels (Arsace) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Daniela Mack (Rosmira) and David Daniels (Arsace)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

And oh dear, I forgot Emilio, the Prince of Cumae, who not only desires Partenope, he demands her, following his threats up with an attack on Naples when she refuses his attentions. Sung by tenor Alek Shrader, Emilio in this production is styled after Man Ray, camera in hand in the first act and pasting posters of the breasts of Kiki on the blank wall of his studio in the third act. The video in the opening the second act portrays the battle between Naples and Cumae through Man Ray’s 1923 film Le Retour à la raison – a visually chaotic avant-garde piece composed of the images of nails, lights and abstract forms.

Along with absurd plot and Surrealist touches, Alden fills the production with lots of stage business. Including the high silliness of Ormonte’s Act III costume – a collision of pink and magenta skirts and crossed swords – and the low silliness of toilet humor in the second act. There’s just a whole lot of silly stuff going on all the time; an antidote, I suppose, to the repetitions of the da capo arias. The audience loved it.

At the backbone of it all though were Handel’s enchanting music and the musical excellence of both the singers and the orchestra. Daniels was wonderful. His tone is large and full and lovely. It’s a little disconcerting with the male lead has a more beautiful soprano tone than the female lead, but it’s also completely enthralling. I’m a long-time fan of the countertenor sound.

Philippe Sly (Ormonte) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Philippe Sly (Ormonte)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

De Niese threw out those runs easily but her voice didn’t reach its full beauty until the second act. Constanzo and Mack acquitted themselves gracefully, though both their voices seemed lighter in the vast caverns of the War Memorial Opera House. Sly was excellent and Shrader was simply thrilling, his voice precisely vibrant and incisive.

Julian Wachner, the director of music and the arts at New York City’s Trinity Wall Street, conducted and played continuo at one of the two harpsichords. Continuo was also provided by theorbo and cello. The orchestra was tuned at the contemporary concert pitch of A440, but several of the arias were transposed down a half-step to mirror the Baroque concert pitch of A415.

And although ENO’s opera policy is to present their operas in English translation, the San Francisco production was sung in Italian; its saucy and sassy supertitles were created “in tandem” with Amanda Holden’s libretto, commissioned by ENO. 

****1