Review: A Brilliant Production and Strong Performance of Handel’s “Partenope” – San Francisco Opera, June 23, 2024

Sab Francisco Opera continued its commitment to presentation of baroque operatic masterpieces by reviving Christopher Alden’s popular production of Handel’s “Partenope”, one of the hits of the company’s 2014 season.

Christopher Alden’s Production

Christopher Alden’s production of Handel’s “Partneope” was first performed at the English National Opera in 2008. My performance reviews of both the first and fourth San Francisco Opera 2014 performances are posted. [See 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 and A Second Look Review: “Partenope” at the San Francisco Opera – October 24, 2014.]

Many operas of the baroque period are based on popular Italian literary or dramatic works from the early and middle decades of the past millennium. These works include a mix of romantic and humorous elements of the kind that inspired Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and several Shakespearean comedies.

21st century opera directors have often found resonance with modern times in the themes of baroque libretti based on post-Renaissance Italian tales. Accordingly, directors such as Alden have moved these stories into contemporary (or more recent) times. Alden chose to associate Partenope, the legendary Queen of Naples, with the 1920s Parisian salon of steamship heiress Nancy Cunard. That salon was a meeting place for many of the artists who promoted avant-garde and surrealist movements in art, music, drama and literature, such as photographer Man Ray, with whom Alden associates with “Partenope’s” character, Emilio.

Performing “Partenope” in the 21st Century

The opera consists of six characters, a high soprano, three soprano/mezzo-sopranos, a tenor and a bass-baritone. In Handel’s time two of the soprano/mezzo-soprano male characters were sung by castrati, a vocal category that does not exist in modern times. In the second half of the 20th century, some baroque castrati roles were transposed to be sung by basses or bass-baritones. Others were sung (as still occurs today) in their original pitch by female sopranos and mezzos dressed as male characters.

The 21st century has seen the emergence of significant numbers of countertenors. These men are trained to sing in the soprano and mezzo-soprano ranges with the vocal flexibility required for the baroque ornamentation associated with castrati.

In both the 2014 and 2024 San Francisco Opera mountings of “Partenope” the distribution of roles has been for a soprano (Partenope), two countertenors (Arsace and Armindo), a mezzo-soprano (Rosmira), a tenor (Emilio) and a bass-baritone (Ormonte).

Julie Fuchs’ Partenope

French soprano Julie Fuchs, in her American debut (and her riole debut), was an admirable Partenope. Fuchs led the excellent cast in a dazzling display of vocal virtuosity.]

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

Fuchs’ Partenope, ostensibly in pursuit of a romantic relationship with Arsace, is absorbed in reacting to the concerns of each of the opera’s characters. Interacting with the others lead to a series of emotions expressed in short arias ranging from hauntingly beautiful melodies to dazzling displays of coloratura pyrotechnics. These include the sweetly performed Qual farfalletta, the enchanting “butterfly aria”.

Daniela Mack’s Rosmira

The character who moves the action is Rosmira, performed this year as she did a decade ago, by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack.

Rosmira is disguised as “Eurimene”, a potentate from an Eastern European principality, supposedly seeking Partenope’s hand. Rosmira is actually the jilted lover of Partenope’s favorite suitor, Arsace. As her disguised persona, Rosmira sets about to encourage the timid Armindo to reveal his romantic feelings for Partenope, hoping thereby to drive a wedge between Arsace and Partenope.

A highlight of the performance was Mack’s vivacious performance of the aria Io seguo sor fiero that closes the first act. Her brilliantly executed rapid-fire vocal ornamentation, accompanied by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s horns, suggested a hunt for big game.

[Below: the disguised Rosmira (Daniela Mack) uses liquor bottles to imitate a horned animal while performing a “hunting aria”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Mack is a versatile artist, portraying a range of characters as unalike as Carmen [Review: Stephen Lawless’ Creative New “Carmen” Production Opens 2014 Santa Fe Opera Season – June 27, 2014], Jackie Kennedy [World Premiere Review: “JFK”, a Fort Worth Fantasy – April 23, 2016] and Frida Kahlo [Review: Daniela Mack, San Francisco Opera Chorus Shine in “El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego”, San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2023]

For my interview with Daniela Mack, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Daniela Mack.

Carlo Vistoli’s Arsace

Another role debut/ American debut artist was the Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli. Pursued by both Fuchs’ Partenope and Mack’s Rosmira, Vistoli’s Arsace is the most romantically conflicted of the opera’s characters. Of Arsace’s arias, the one that best show-cased Vistoli’s skill in high-speed coloratura ornamentation is the second act’s Furibondo spira il vento.

[Below: the role of Arsace is performed by Carlo Vistoli; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francsico Opera.]

As further evidence of the 21st century baroque music renaissance, Vistoli is only a dozen years into a very promising countertenor career. Among Vistoli’s voice teachers is one of my favorite baroque opera performers, contralto Sonia Prina. Her spectacular appearances the San Francisco and Houston Grand Operas are fond memories [See, for example, Review: Graham, Swenson, Prina Luminous in San Francisco Opera’s Stellar “Ariodante”, June 15, 2008.]

Nicholas Tamagna’s Armindo

New York countertenor Nicholas Tamagna performed the role of the shy Armindo. In Alden’s production, the role is a pnysical one, including sliding down, then falling off the staircase in Act I and engaging in a solo dance (with cane) in Act III.

[Below: Nicholas Tamagna as Armindo, dancing; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Vocally, Tamagna was impressive. Armindo’s seductively melodious Act I aria Voglio dire al mio tesoro, revealing his secret love for Partenope, was beautifully sung.

Alek Shrader’s Emilio

If the story concerning the love interests of Partenope, Arsace, Rosmira and Armindo can be time-shifted without much difficulty from Renaissance Italy to Handel’s Georgian England to the modern Era, the fate “Partenope’s” characters of Emilio and Ormonte in such a time-shift are different matters.

In Handel’s opera, Emilio iis the ruler of a neighboring sovereignty, who is both Partenope’s political rival and a suitor for her hand in marriage. When Partenope rejects Emilio’s offer, he mobilizes his troops against Partenope’s, but is captured by Rosmira’s “Eurimene”

Alden’s production transformed the Emilio character into a photographer, modeled on American-expatriate Parisian artist/photographer Man Ray. The result is theatrically a bit dissonant with Emilio’s role in the Handel’s libretto.

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

Fortunately, the Emilio character is performed, as he was in 2014, by tenor Alek Shrader, whose winsome acting and vocal proficiency makes any role he assays enjoyable for the audience. Shrader performed the vocal gymnastics of Emilio’s most celebrated aria, Barbaro fato, is! with gusto.

Alek Shrader and Daniela Mack are a married couple. It is a special privilege for married singers to have operas with roles appropriate to both their voices.

Fortunately, there are several operas from the baroque, bel canto and modern repertories which the two artists can perform together. [As examples, see: Review: Daniela Mack, Alek Shrader, Audun Iversen and Maurizio Muraro Sparkle in San Francisco Opera “Barber of Seville” – November 14, 2013 and Review: Handel’s “Semele” Excels with Amanda Forsythe, Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader, Opera Philadelphia, September 19, 2019.]

[Below: In “Partenope” Alek Shrader, left, is cast as Emilio and Shrader’s wife, Daniela Mack, right, is cast as Rosmira; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

My interviews with Shrader are posted at: Rising Stars: An Interview with Alek Shrader and “Opera Acting Without Music” – A Conversation with Alek Shrader,

Hadleigh Adams’ Ormonte

New Zealand bass Hadleigh Adams, a former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, performed the sixth role, that of Partenope’s captain of the guards, Ormonte. Once Partenope’s forces have captured Emilio, Ormonte has little to contribute to the opera’s plot.

Adams gave a solid vocal performance as Ormonte, but that is likely not what most audience memhers will rememher about his role. To assure Ormonte stands out in our memories, this production has Ormonte change into the most elaborate of designer Jon Morrell’s costume creations for the production.

[Below: his enemy captured, Ormonte (Hadleigh Adams), changes into something more comfortable; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Previously, Adams has distinguished himself with fine performances of such comparimario roles as Angelotti [Review: An Appealing New “Tosca” for San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2018] and Agrippa [World Premiere Run Review: Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra” – San Francisco Opera, September 18, 2022].

Maestro Christopher Moulds and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra

Five years after his impressive San Francisco Opera debut [Review: A Finely Sung “Orlando” Melds Handel’s Seductive Music with Harry Fehr’s Surreal Staging – San Francisco Opera, June 9, 2019], British Maestro Christopher Moulds returned to conduct another melodious Handel score.

[Below: Maestro Christopher Moulds; edited image, based on a N. Moulds photograph for Det Norske Blåseensemble.]

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra responded to Moulds’ inspired leadership with a bright-sounding performance.

Christopher Alden’s Production Revival

San Francisco Opera’s staff director Roy Rallo oversaw the revival of New York director Christopher Alden’s production. The sets were those of French designer Andrew Lieberman and the costumes of British designer Jon Morrell.

[Below: Designer Andrew Lieberman’s first act set for “Partenope”‘ edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]

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Illinois designer Andrew Silverman’s lighting was revived by California designer Gary Marder. The choreographer was Ireland’s Colm Seery.

Recommendation

I recommend the cast and production to veteran,opera-goers, especially those who appreciate excellent performances in the baroque opera styles; and to persons new to baroque opera.