Review: ‘Partenope’ at San Francisco Opera (***)

SF Opera presents a surrealist-inspired production of Handel's baroque opera, "Partenope". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.
SF Opera presents a surrealist-inspired production of Handel’s baroque opera, “Partenope”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

(Hugh Behm-Steinberg and Mary Behm-Steinberg)

(Rating: ***)

(“Partenope” plays at the War Memorial Opera House on October 18, 21, 24, 30 and November 2, 2014.)

More than many works, “Partenope” is a bit difficult to review because, by its very nature, it is emotionally inaccessible. You can’t easily care about any of the characters because Baroque opera lacks the narrative structure typical of late 18th century to 20th century operas with which contemporary audiences are more familiar. Rather, Baroque operas, of which “Partenope” is both example and critique, are mostly series of arias designed to show off the vocal skills of the performers while only loosely relating a story.

In Handel’s time, operas weren’t meant to be viewed silently in the dark: they were social events, more akin to seeing a cabaret show or a live band at a dance club (not to mention what might go on in a private, curtained box on the upper levels of the theatre). In such a context, a four hour long opera, where the performers mostly just stand and sing, would be perfectly acceptable. Because such an approach would never work in a contemporary performance, modern stagings of Baroque operas offer a blank slate: the music is more or less the same, but everything else is up for grabs.

“Partenope” has no chorus, no ballet, and precious little recitative. One person sings, then another person sings.

This particular production of “Partenope” employs lavish stage sets and fills much of the open space around and between the arias with physical comedy. While the story, such as it is, could be set in any time or place, the choice of a Dadaist/Surrealist set of references and a 1930’s monochromatic modernist salon reasserts the emotional inaccessibility of the work, as if the staging was meant to render “Partenope” as dream, with archetypes, rather than real people, as characters.

Danielle de Niese as Partenope, Philippe Sly as Ormonte, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo, David Daniels as Arsace and Daniela Mack as Rosmira in SF Opera's production of Handel's "Partenope". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver
Danielle de Niese as Partenope, Philippe Sly as Ormonte, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo, David Daniels as Arsace and Daniela Mack as Rosmira in SF Opera’s production of Handel’s “Partenope”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

The story line is both simple and needlessly complex. Partenope, Queen of Naples, is being courted by three male caricatures (manly Arsace, sensitive Armindo, and brutish Emilio) when, unexpectedly, a fourth, Eurimene, turns up. Eurimene, however, is Rosmira in disguise. Having been jilted by Arsace, she is seeking revenge by upending his relationship with Partenope. Arsace still loves Rosmira as well as Partenope, and is torn. Eurimene/Rosmira encourages Armindo to openly declare his feelings for Partenope so that she can have Arsace for herself. And Emilio, resembling a cross between Man Ray and Buster Keaton, declares war. That’s act one.

Each act’s set is a different kind of space whose alteration mimics the dreamlike progression of the characters through the plot. The enormous pristine white wall in act one is grafittied with the suggestion of Partenope’s body. The plot of act three could be summed up by the completion of a giant photo collage of Rosmira’s body, whose true gender, revealed at the end, sorts out the various entanglements as arrestingly as the popping of a very lovely soap bubble.

By the end of the opera, one has a sense of each of the characters through the variety of arias they sing expressing various aspects of their feelings. We care about them because they mirror our own memories and feelings of love and jealousy.

The production features some standout musical performances, particularly Danelle de Niese as Partenope, Daniela Mack as Rosmira, and Alek Shrader as Emilio. All of them perform their vocal acrobatics with skill and elegance. Countertenors David Danels (Arsace) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo) both sing roles originally meant for castrati, and Daniels seems to have problems projecting at several points in the show. Costanzo performs physical comedy with extraordinary grace, singing while falling down stairs, hanging from a stairwell, and dancing with a rebellious hat, a reference to Hans Richter’s 1927 Dadaist film “Ghosts Before Breakfast“. Shrader as Emilio is also physically brilliant with his gymnastics in a public restroom and his hand shadows over Man Ray projections on the rear wall. Some of the stage business leans too heavily on postmodernist clichés, such as having characters at various points walk very slowly across the stage for no apparent reason other than to give them something to do. And the boob jokes in act three are juvenile at best.

The music and visuals alternately resound and dissipate as the characters declare their feelings, become frustrated, rewarded and released.

If one is looking for a concise, realistic plot, this opera will seem disappointing. Instead, “Partenope” offers a dreamlike, meandering experience, an evening spent listening to beautiful arias on the nature of love and desire.

For further information, click here.

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“Partenope”, music by George Frederic Handel, libretto by Anonymous. Production originally created by English National Opera and Opera Australia. Director: Christopher Alden. Conductor: Julian Wachner. Set Designer: Andrew Lieberman. Costume Designer: Jon Morrell. Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman. Associate Lighting Designer: Gary Marder.

Partenope: Danielle De Niese. Rosmira: Daniela Mack. Arsace: David Daniels. Emilio: Alek Shrader. Armindo: Anthony Roth Costanzo. Ormonte: Philippe Sly.

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