Opera Review: PARTENOPE (San Francisco Opera)

Post image for Opera Review: PARTENOPE (San Francisco Opera)

by Michael M. Landman-Karny on June 18, 2024

in Music,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Baroque opera enthusiasts are in for a treat with San Francisco Opera‘s recent production of Handel’s comic opera, Partenope, which opened last weekend at War Memorial Opera House for five performances only. Composed in 1730 during a period of intense competition and innovation in London’s operatic scene, Georg Friedrich Handel‘s foray into comedic opera emerged as a bold departure from his usual tragic fare. Even though Silvio Stampiglia‘s 1699 libretto offers a unique blend of humor and Handel those intricate compositions, Partenope initially received mixed reviews, but has ultimately secured its place in the Baroque repertoire.

Julie Fuchs as Partenope, Carlo Vistoli as Arsace, Nicholas Tamagna as Armindo,
Hadleigh Adams as Ormonte, and Daniela Mack as Rosmira

Christopher Alden‘s production is an exhilarating amalgamation of wit, modernity, and musical brilliance. Alden’s inventive and audacious staging breathes new life into this Baroque gem, crafting an unforgettable experience that should resonate deeply with contemporary patrons through its visual and auditory splendor. This is a masterful reimagining of Handel’s opera, blending historical and contemporary elements to create a fresh and winning experience. The combination of a 1920s setting, witty direction, and outstanding musical performances results in a production that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Alden’s ability to highlight the opera’s comedic aspects while maintaining its emotional integrity is a testament to his skill as a director.

Alek Shrader as Emilio

Alden’s decision to set Partenope in the Roaring Twenties is a clever one, infusing the opera with the lively spirit and stylish sophistication of the Jazz Age. This era, characterized by artistic revolution and societal shifts, serves as an ideal backdrop for the opera’s themes of love, disguise, and playful deception. The minimalist yet striking set design by Andrew Lieberman employs Art Deco elements, creating an environment that is both chic and evocative. Geometric patterns, mirrored surfaces, and elegant furnishings conjure the opulence and modernity of the pre-Depression era, enhancing the narrative with a visually stimulating atmosphere.

Julie Fuchs as Partenope, Daniela Mack as Rosmira, and Carlo Vistoli as Arsace

Jon Morrell’s costume design further enriches the production. The vibrant mix of flapper dresses, tailored suits, and avant-garde fashion encapsulates the ’20s while allowing the performers fluid movement and expressive freedom. This sartorial elegance not only makes the opera more accessible and relatable to today’s viewers but also underscores the timelessness of Handel’s music and the universality of the story.

Carlo Vistoli as Arsace

Alden’s directorial vision is infused with humor, boldness, and a touch of the absurd. His interpretation foregrounds the opera’s comedic potential, drawing out the eccentricities and foibles of each character with a deft hand. Central to the plot is the romantic entanglement involving Partenope, Queen of Naples, and her three suitors: the dashing Arsace, the devoted Armindo, and Eurimene, who is actually Arsace’s former lover Rosmira in disguise.

 Julie Fuchs as Partenope and Alek Shrader as Emilio

Alden’s treatment of these relationships is both playful and perceptive. The love quadrangle unfolds with a delightful blend of slapstick humor, physical comedy, and exaggerated theatricality, bringing the characters’ emotional predicaments to the fore. This engaging approach ensures that the opera’s comedic elements are highlighted without overshadowing its more poignant moments. Alden skillfully balances the opera’s lightheartedness with its deeper emotional undercurrents, creating a multifaceted and richly textured production.

Alek Shrader as Emilio, Nicholas Tamagna as Armindo, Daniela Mack as Rosmira,
Julie Fuchs as Partenope, Carlo Vistoli as Arsace, and Hadleigh Adams as Ormonte

Under the baton of Christopher Moulds, the sound is exemplary. Moulds, a renowned Baroque specialist, leads the orchestra with precision and propulsive flair, bringing out the intricate textures and rhythms of Handel’s score with brilliant phrasing and conscious use of vibrato.

Daniela Mack as Rosmira (disguised as Eurimene) with Carlo Vistoli as Arsace

The cast delivers uniformly outstanding performances, each singer bringing their character vividly to life. Soprano Julie Fuchs, as Partenope, is a captivating presence, combining vocal agility with stage-burning charisma. Her bright soprano navigates the complex, highly decorated arias with flawless execution, highlighting Partenope’s complexity as a character.

Julie Fuchs

Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli, in the role of Arsace, offers a performance of remarkable vocal beauty and expressiveness. His voice, an unusually rich countertenor, exhibits breathtaking dynamic control and complete command of florid singing.

Carlo Vistoli as Arsace

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack shines as Rosmira/Eurimene, delivering a performance rich in emotional intensity and vocal warmth. Her scenes with Vistoli are particularly compelling, as they navigate the delicate balance of love, betrayal, and reconciliation with heartfelt sincerity.

Alek Shrader as Emilio and Daniela Mack as Rosmira (disguised as Eurimene)

Countertenor Nicholas Tamagna, making his company debut as the shy Armindo, provides a lighter vocal contrast to Vistoli’s. His singing, characterized by immaculate floating notes and expressive tones, captivates from start to finish. Tenor Alek Shrader, as the earnest Emilio, and baritone Hadleigh Adams, as the pragmatic Ormonte, round out the cast with strong, distinctive performances that add profundity and variety to the ensemble.

Hadleigh Adams as Ormonte

The staging and inventive, dynamic movement are integral to the production’s success, intensifying the narrative. Alden’s use of space is imaginative, with characters often breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience (in English!), creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy.

Nicholas Tamagna as Armindo and Julie Fuchs in the title role

Choreographer Andrew George’s work deserves special mention for its creativity and energy. The dance sequences, inspired by the Charleston and other popular dance styles of the era, add a vibrant, kinetic dimension. These moments are seamlessly woven into the action, providing visual variety, strengthening the storytelling with exuberance and charm.

Carlo Vistoli as Arsace and Julie Fuchs in the title role

It is important to note that Partenope is not considered to be one of Handel’s masterpieces. The plot is convoluted, with intricate relationships between characters that may be challenging for some audiences to follow without prior knowledge of the story. The characters lack the emotional depth found in Handel’s more serious operas, such as Giulio Cesare. The focus on witty dialogue comes at the expense of deep emotional engagement.

Nicholas Tamagna as Armindo

However, for Baroque music aficionados such as this critic, Alden’s Partenope is a tour-de-force that succeeds on multiple levels — visually, musically, and dramatically. It is a production that not only honors the spirit of Handel’s work but also reinvents it for a modern audience, ensuring that the opera’s charm, wit, and emotional depth continue to resonate.

photos by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave
in English with English supertitles
June 19 at 7:30, June 23 at 2 (also a livestream), June 25 at 7:30, June 28 at 7:30
ends on June 28, 2024
for tickets, call 415-864-3330 or visit SF Opera
$10 standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance
presented in rep with Mozart’s The Magic Flute (May 30–June 30)
and the U.S. premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence (June 1–21)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Blake June 20, 2024 at 10:00 am

It was a fun and excellent production indeed!

A couple of minor points regarding the review. You wrote: “Tenor Alek Shrader, as the earnest Armindo …” Since you already mentioned that Nicholas Tamagna sang that role, it must be an editing error. Alek Shrader sang the part of Emilio, who is actually a fourth suitor, who waged battle to win Partenope.

Also, the only bit of English in the production (that I heard) was at the end of Partenope’s aria, finished standing on the bed, when Ormonte yelled “Brava!”, and she said “Thank you.” But it was addressed to Ormonte, not the audience.

Otherwise an excellent and accurate review!


Tony Frankel June 20, 2024 at 11:58 am

Thanks Dan! Yes, you are correct. Alek Shrader is now listed as Emilio.


Leave a Comment