SFO’s madcap “Partenope” serves up fine vocalism and broad comedy in equal measures

October 20, 2014
By Steven Winn
David Daniels, Danielle de Niese and Daniela Mack (standing) in Handel's "Partenope" at San Francisco Opera.  Photo: Cory Weaver

David Daniels, Danielle de Niese and Daniela Mack (standing) in Handel’s “Partenope” at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Defeated in battle and thwarted in love, Emilio, played by tenor Alek Shrader in San Francisco Opera’s Partenope, is captured and confined to quarters. His prison, in this case, is the water closet in an elegantly austere 1920s Paris mansion.

Emilio’s second-act aria of toilet escape, which begins with Shrader singing first behind the frosted glass door and then through a transom window he pops open, set off a show-stopping ovation at the War Memorial Opera House. The fusion of rage and anguish, flowingly ornamented singing and one loopy comic invention after another kicked an already amazing evening into an exhilarating new gear.

This production of Handel’s 1730 serio-comic work, first mounted in London in 2008 by the English National Opera and Opera Australia, is a thoroughgoing triumph. Smartly conceived, vividly staged and acted, heroically sung, wildly witty and shot through with emotional and psychological complexity, Partenope delights on multiple levels from beginning to end.

Credit belongs to all involved for this 3-1/2-hour marvel. By transposing a synthetically contrived story of love, war and erotic intrigue to a Paris salon steeped in the era’s Surrealism of Man Ray, Max Ernst and others, director Christopher Alden finds an ideal new key for the work. His approach is at once stylized and ardent, a simultaneous send-up and reinvigoration of Baroque opera conventions.

The designers deliver a dream production that feels both aesthetically cool and intimately hot-blooded, from a sleek white staircase in the first act to the shadowy film clips in the second act and the billboard-sized photo-montage of a woman’s bare torso in the third. There are painful confessions and banana sight gags, bare-faced cruelty and yoga jokes. Sexual desire – fulfilled, deflected or denied – is seriously funny business here. They may keep dealing cards and shaking up cocktails, but these characters are playing for keeps.

A cast of six, led by the glamorous and ideally cast soprano Danielle de Niese in the title role and countertenor David Daniels as the ambivalent and tormented lover Arsace, keeps leaping to improbable new heights of singing wonderfully under surpassingly weird conditions. Mezzo Daniela Mack sheds most of her male-disguise costume in one aria. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, as the dauntless suitor Armindo, tap dances in another. There’s almost no piece of furniture – tables, chairs, a daybed – that de Niese doesn’t climb on or caress in her florid arias.

While some stunts get over-worked – notably one about Emilio’s camera as a weapon – there’s nothing arbitrary about Alden’s staging. It’s all about going to the extremes for love and honor, no matter how immersive or silly getting there may be. The extravagant trills and runs the singers deliver so bravely and gloriously are an integral part of the quest.

Conductor Julian Wachner supports it all with a supple, responsive and dynamically charged reading of the orchestral score. The dotted rhythms are spring-loaded with exultant hunting horns and yearning oboes. For all the liberties it takes, this is a Partenope utterly faithful to the equipoise and expressiveness of Handel’s music.

The production begins in a droll and somewhat mannered way. After Shrader executes a somber bit of Dada-esque stage business with a paper mask during the overture, the curtain rises on a frieze that features de Niese standing on a chair with her foot up on a table. There’s no question she’ll be a formidable object of desire for her three suitors.

When the actors move about in super slow motion, Alden seems to be invoking the performance art rigors of director Robert Wilson’s staging of Einstein on the Beach. The next thing you know Costanzo is delivering a love-sick aria while tumbling down the stairs and hanging in mid-air like a circus acrobat. The pacing and behavior are as impulsive as the plot, adapted from Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto.

With a penchant for striking poses and a voice that rings out with an ice purity or flutters breathily in an aria about butterflies, de Niese projects an almost superhuman desirability. It’s no wonder the men seems to wilt in her presence. Daniels, in a bright blue dinner jacket, looked and sounded a little stressed in the early going, with a somewhat raw tone and a few rough register shifts. His voice had turned meltingly voluptuous by the third act, even as he sweated out the choice between Partenope and the maddening Rosmira in suit and tie.

With her smoky voice and coyly tough demenor, Mack brought real substance to a role that could have come off as just a perverse tease. Perched high on a bookshelf and singing with a kind of deadpan air of resignation near the end, she was quietly heartbreaking. Costanzo lacked the force and range of Daniels’ countertenor, but he sang with conviction and an intrepid bright tone, whether tap dancing, flinging off his shirt or hanging by his fingertips. Bass baritone Phillippe Sly gave a forceful and funny performance in the supporting role of Ormonte.

Partenope continues through November 2. sfopera.com; 415-864-3330.

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