Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope” – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 2014

The San Francisco Opera was founded in 1923 but did not perform its first regular season opera composed by George Friderick Handel until 59 years later when Handel’s most performed operatic work, ‘Giulio Cesare”, was first mounted.

In the 32 San Francisco Opera seasons that followed the 1982 “Cesare” eight different Handel operas have been performed. The eighth to be introduced to San Francisco Opera audiences is “Partenope”, a romantic comedy from 1730 about some interpersonal relationships of  the queen who founded the Italian city of Naples.

However, Handel’s only tangentially relates to ancient Naples. All action is centered around the actions and emotions of six characters who are friends or enemies of the Queen.

San Francisco Opera chose to introduce the work utiliIizing Christopher Alden’s bright production which located the action in a 1920s salon in Paris. Here Queen Partenope is not a royal, but a celebrity.

Every one of the six characters was cast with care. Handel’s operas typically follow the 18th century tradition of alternating recitative in which plot exposition is advanced with solo arias, each expressing the emotional reaction to what has just been discussed by one of the characters. Each aria is a gem, and each requires the technical vocalism and the ability of the artist to convey whatever emotion (love, despair, anger, jealousy) that the character expresses.

Danielle De Niese’s Partenope 

The title role signalled the return to San Francisco of lyric soprano Danielle De Niese [see Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010] in the first Partenope of her career.

[Below: Danielle De Niese as Partenope; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


De Niese is internationally recognized as a superb Handelian, and Handel’s operas were a major element in establishing her reputation [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 2.]

Her arias were filled with energy, a healthy vibrato gleaming through her fast-paced lyric coloratura passages.

David Daniels’ Arsace

Daniels has performed five roles at ths San Francisco Opera, four in early 18th century operas by Handel (previously the title role in “Giulio Cesare” in 2000, Bertarido in “Rodelinda” in 2005, and Arsamenes in “Xerxes” in 2011 [for the latter, see my review at  Graham, Daniels, Prina Excel in Elegant, Witty “Xerxes” – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 2011.]

[Below: David Daniels as Arsace; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Arguably the most famous counter-tenor currently performing today, Daniels was a forceful presence.

In my interview with Daniels, he stated that both of the last two roles that he has sung at the War Memorial – Arsamenes and Arsace – are two that he feels best fits his voice [See Top of His Game – An Interview with David Daniels.]

Arsace was a man rocked with guilt as he desired Partenope, even though he was fully conscious of his betrayal of his previous lover, Rosmira. Daniels is so effective in exhibiting the inner conflict of a plaintive Handelian aria that no one is surprised when the affections of Daniels’ Arsace are restored to Rosmira at opera’s end.

Alek Shrader’s Emilio

In my recent interview with Alek Shrader, soon to be published on this website, he observed that his leggiero tenor voice has been gaining weight, and that his vocal future lies with the lyric tenor repertory. His vocal transformation can be detected in his strong vocal performance in the often hefty demands of the role of Emilio.

[Below: Alek Shrader as Emilio;  edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


This was never more evident than in his bravura aria Barbaro faro si! that elicited one the biggest ovations of the evening.

What has not changed is Shrader’s aggressive athleticism, so evident in his recent performances as Ernesto [See Review: Ovations for Laurent Pelly’s Daffy “Don Pasquale” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2014], which stage director Alden used effectively in his surreal conceptualization of Emilio as a surrealist photographer.

Daniela Mack’s Rosmira

Daniela Mack [in real life, Alek Shrader’s wife] opened the Santa Fe Opera 2014 season in the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” [Review: Stephen Lawless’ Creative New “Carmen” Production Opens 2014 Santa Fe Opera Season – June 27, 2014].

Her characterization of Rosmira – disguisesd first as a man, but ultimately revealing her actual gender – had a feistiness that worked.

[Below: Rosmira, disguised as Eurimene (Daniela Mack, left) accuses her lover Arsace (David Daniels, right) of betrayal; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Rosmira has one of the opera’s big showstoppers, the second act Furie son dell’Alma mia, which she dispatched with verve, receiving one of the evening’s big audience ovations as her reward.

Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Armindo and Philippe Sly’s Ormonte

I suspect that were the audience polled on which of these attractive cast members was the audience favorite, many votes would be cast for Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose smitten but shy portrayal of Armindo for his San Francisco Opera debut proved to be most affecting.

[Below: Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Like Shrader, Costanzo is adept at physical comedy, and watching his drunken staircase staggering was a breathtaking experience.

Last season at the Glimmerglass Festival, he showed  ability in the incorporation of modern dance into opera [see Superlative: Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nadine Sierra, Ensemble Dancers Superb in Jessica Lang’s Visualization of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – Glimmerglass Festival, July 20, 2013]. In San Francisco Costanzo showed great skill in incorporating tap-dancing into operatic comedy.

Holding his own amid this brilliant cast was the Ormonte of Adler fellow Philippe Sly, whose Guglielmo in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” marked him as a future leading man in opera [See A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013.]

Notes on the Production 

The production is that of American director Christopher Alden, originally created for London’s English National Opera in 2008. In the spirit of a comedy written for the Elizabethan stage, the story concerns two pairs of lovers, both of whom will be married by opera’s end, but not without a series of events and misadventures.

The catalyst that moves the plot is the decision of Rosmira, in love with Arsace, to disguise herself as a man. Because Arsace has become infatuated with Partenope, it is Rosmira’s intent to inject her/himself into the situation to foil any long-term Arsace-Partenope relationship. Fortunately for Rosmira’s long-term strategy, there is another suitor for Partenope’s hand, Armindo. Despite Armindo shyness, as a consequence of Rosmira’s actions, as he ultimately wins Partenope.

[Below: the Act I sets for Handel’s “Partenope”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Two other characters are present. Emilio, the rather eccentric ruler of a neighboring city, who is yet another suitor, and the sage, Ormonte. Battle lines are drawn, literally. (Both Emilio and Partenope command troops of soldiers, which one, of course, never sees.) Duels are threatened, but, in the end, abandoned.

Even though Queen Partenope is associated with the mythology of ancient Naples, the opera has a generic plot, no more time-and place-specific than Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” of over a half century later.

Alden, who likes to find modern parallels in the plots of baroque operas, decided to center the opera in Paris in the 1920s, in the middle of the salon like that conducted by a historical person, the steamship heiress Nancy Cunard. Cocktails and card games are prominent.

Since Cunard’s salon was associated with the surrealist photographer Man Ray, so too may be found an Emilio who himself is a photographer not unlike Man Ray. Photographer Emilio, as is Emilio in Handel’s plot, is a disruptive presence.

[Below: Rosmira (Daniela Mack, left) surprises Emilio (Alek Shrader, right) with the news that she is, actually, a woman; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


These references to cultural icons of nearly a century past are intriguing, but whether one’s knowledge of the period is deep or shallow, it has only so much to do with the performance. In the end, all the preparations for battle or for duels lead to nothing more than a double marriage.

What trumps all is the artistry of the six principals and the bright sound of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Julian Wachner in his San Francisco Opera debut.


I recommend this performance to all opera lovers with an appreciation of the baroque style of operatic opposition, and who wish to see a brilliantly performed, nicely staged version of a superb Handel opera.