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San Francisco Opera

In Review Partenope hdl 1115
Winning hands: De Niese, Sly, Costanzo, Daniels and Mack in Partenope at SFO
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2015

Partenope is an irresistible confection, and San Francisco Opera’s production — the first in the company’s ninety-two-year history — ushered it into the repertoire with an apt mix of wit and invention. With superb music direction by Julian Wach­ner, an ebullient production by Christopher Alden and a dynamically youthful cast featuring no fewer than four role debuts, the opening-night performance on October 15 effectively balanced the competing strains of desire and torment, comedy and pathos in Handel’s 1730 score, even as it suggested a bright future for the next generation of Baroque singers.

Alden’s staging, created for English National Opera and Opera Australia, advances the plot from its original Neapolitan setting to Paris in the 1920s, making the warrior queen of the title a breezy, willfully emancipated sensualist. Andrew Lieberman’s Dada-inspired set featured black-and-white film clips, gas masks and other odd ephemera. Act I opened on a sleek white-on-white set decorated with a drinks bar and a table where Partenope and her suitors played cards; a curvy Deco staircase on one side was used for entrances and exits. Jon Morrell’s costumes favored androgynous chic in a muted palette. Alden directed the characters to act out their passions and petulance in outsized fashion; faces were slapped and undergarments thrown, heightening the emotional charge in Handel’s score as the singers clinched and raged their way to the final resolution.

David Daniels fulfilled all requirements as Arsace. Always an assured Handelian, the countertenor displayed sweet timbre and sturdy vocal production, capping his performance with a meltingly beautiful “Ch’io parta?” His characterization of the concupiscent, indecisive prince never forced the comedy and was funnier as a result. Singing her first Partenope, Danielle de Niese got off to a rather effortful start; it remains to be seen whether Handel roles are a truly comfortable fit for the soprano in a house of this size, but as the evening progressed, she rose to the challenge with vocal allure and considerable theatrical verve, delivering a vibrant “L’amor ed il destin.”

The rest of the cast performed handsomely. The evening’s second countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, made an indelible company debut as Armindo. Singing with distinctive, velvety tone and employing keen comic skills that included pratfalls worthy of Buster Keaton, he polished the role of the lovestruck prince until it gleamed. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, cutting an elegant figure in mannish suits, raged convincingly through Rosmira/Eurimene’s arias. Tenor Alek Shrader, a shadowy stand-in for the artist Man Ray, was an amusing, firm-voiced Emilio, and bass-baritone Philippe Sly made insinuating contributions as Ormonte.

Conductor Wachner, in his first San Francisco appearance, led a smoothly integrated performance marked by buoyant phrasing, luxuriant flow, and judicious dynamic levels that supported the singers, let the recitatives sparkle and brought Handel’s arias to their glorious heights. This orchestra has never been called a Baroque ensemble, but the conductor made it sound like one. spacer 



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