Sunday, November 2, 2014

Partenope - a review

Philippe Sly as Ormonte
Years ago, when I was still working, I divided my CD collection into morning music and evening music.  I didn’t want to listen to Chopin’s nocturnes in the morning, and I found Bach’s Two and Three Part Inventions made me terribly antsy in the evening. Cello music in the morning made me want to open a bottle of wine instead of have my toast and tea and head off to work.  I soon fell into a habit of starting my day with the Brandenburg Concertos.  Or with an orchestral version of Brahms' Liebesliederwalzer. I needed another section for Mozart and others who seemed to work at almost any time of day, but it made it easier to find music to match my mood.

Sometimes we put chansons on while we're eating dinner, but mostly, music, for me, is for direct listening. Jazz, especially. I like live jazz, but I can’t stand to have it on as background music. These "easy listening" radio stations, elevator music, and other forms of muzak get under my skin. The other night I was in a restaurant that had disco playing at dinner and I had to get up and leave. The wrong music is like a blunt instrument to the head. And the right music can deliver you from evil. John Philip Sousa should be permitted only on the 4th of July.  I save Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs for times when I am in need of some spiritual uplifting.  The musical equivalent to macadamia nuts, which I learned years ago could lift me out of a depression in no time.  

The Four Last Songs, is in a category of its own, actually. How often do you run across something that can raise you to a level of understanding that death is a part of life? Waltzes can be both sad and uplifting. Show tunes are not my thing, normally, but sometimes - like Alfie Boe singing Bring Him Home or almost anybody singing Pie Jesu - they can blow you away.

In the past few years, I have been going to the concerts of this wonderful local organization we have in the Bay Area known as the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and I’m beginning to evolve away from the notion that Baroque is music for the head and not the heart.  I’m even beginning to think I might come to appreciate Handel other than at Easter time.  Until recently, everything I heard of his sounded like The Messiah.  Not my cup of tea. I still feel, frankly, that Handel is just fine for about three quarters of an hour, but then the dum-de-dum-de-dum of his rhythms begins to wear thin. Lately, however, I’ve been getting better at discerning variation and appreciating his ability to create beautiful melodies.  So when I learned that the San Francisco Opera Company was joining in this new Handel revival of the past several years and putting on a performance of Partenope, I went and got tickets.   What can I lose? I thought.   A little harpsichord here, a few trumpet blasts there, maybe the singers will be especially good and it will be worth seeing.

Little did I know I was about to have the most rolickingly good time I’ve ever had at an opera performance.  What made it that way, of course, was not the music but the creativity of the choreography and stage setting,
Danielle de Niese as Partenope
which, since I see nobody else credited for this, I assume is the work of director Christopher Alden, who took ideas from Salvatore Dali and Man Ray and created a magnificently original dadaist spectacle.  I doubt this would have worked without the set design (Andrew Lieberman), the costumes (Jon Morrell) and the lighting (Adam Silverman).  I’m attempted to say especially the lighting, since the silhouettes on the wall and behind screens was often magical.  And unexpectedly hilarious, as when Emilio (Alek Shrader) suddenly started making silly hand shadows from the light of a film projector.  But the 20s Paris jazz set gowns worn by Partenope (Australian Danielle de Niese) and the contrasting color of the blue, green and brown suits worn by the suitors, all set against the stark white walls and staircase and the black chairs, were all equally sit-up-and-take-notice. 

The Emilio character (Alex Shrader) starts the performance, walking in with probably the most absurd image of many absurd images to come, a picture frame-like mask worn over his face, held on by goggles, an image apparently inspired by Man Ray.  Another part of the surreal was the slow-paced walking around by the characters while action was going on in another part of the stage, a kind of silly humor that sneaks up on you.  Then there is the also unexpected bit of creativity to be found in the modern translation in the supertitles, which fit hand-in-glove with the costumes of a decadent Parisian high society of the 1920s.

Opening scene
All done with some serious gender-bending. Not only are two of the male roles sung by countertenors, aka male sopranos, but the second female role, Rosmira (Daniela Mack), decks herself up in male drag and calls herself Eurimene.

Dramaturg Peter Littlefield writes in the production notes:

...we took our inspiration from the Surrealists and their vision of the erotic nature of the psyche.  Artists and writers such as André Breton, Louis Aragon, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and Man Ray came of age under the shadow of the First World War.  Influenced by the ideas of Freud and wary of industrialization on the one hand, and Fascism on the other, they thought the rational ideal of culture was delusional.  In their view of the mind, commonsense gives way to the logic of dreams.  The forces of feeling overturn the artificiality of relationships.  And they put desire at the center -- elusive, inescapable, and inextricable from love.

That description doesn’t begin to reveal, however, how well the creators were able to turn the absurd into the comical.

Four in the salon

At the center of the story, you’ve got Partenope, Queen of Naples.  She has two suitors, Prince Arsace of Corinth and Prince Armindo of Rhodes.  Arsace is a cad, but because Armindo is too timid to declare his love initially, Arsace makes inroads with Partenope.  This relationship meets a hurdle, however, when Rosmira shows up.  She is Arsace’s former love, whom he deserted when he decided to pursue Partenope. Rosmira has followed Arsace to Naples dressed as a man (Eurimene).  Arsace spots her despite the disguise, and admits that he still loves her. She gets him to agree not to reveal her disguise.

The plot descends into the absurd when Partenope, wondering why Armindo is hanging around in such a sour mood, gets him to finally admit that he loves her but has held back because he feared she loved Arsace (which she kind of does).  No sooner is that act of courage accomplished, when Eurimene (Rosmira) steps in and declares that he too, like Arsace and Armindo, is an admirer. Rosmira/Eurimene’s goal, apparently is to keep Partenope from Arsace, but all she actually accomplishes is to make things more difficult for Armindo.

As if this love rectangle were not sufficiently complicated, in comes Prince Emilio, a fourth suitor, from the neighboring kingdom of Cumae.  Emilio is different from the others, however, in that he comes with an army and seeks to conquer Partenope by conquering her kingdom.  “Bring it on,” she says, and gets Arsace to form an army in her defense.    All this accomplishes is to make the other suitors jealous.    And that’s the end of Act I.  And there are two more acts. Can Handel survive?

Act II begins with the battle.  In the original, Partenope’s forces, led by Arsace, defeat Emilio, and he is thrown into prison.  In the Christopher Alden version, Emilio enters with a gun, is tackled by Arsace and locked up in the toilet, where he proceeds to cover himself entirely with toilet paper. Meanwhile, out of sight, Partenope is rescued from disaster by Armindo, who therefore rises in her estimation as her savior and protector.  Then in comes Rosmira/Eurimene, claiming to have defeated Emilio, and, no doubt out of love for Rosmira, Arsace goes along with the charade. Arsace now struggles, torn by love of both women, not knowing which way to turn.   In similar fashion, Partenope is torn by love of her two suitors, one, Arsace, who has just saved her kingdom, and the other, Armindo, who has just saved her life.

In Act III, Eurimene (still Rosmira in disguise) confronts Partenope with the information that Arsace once loved and jilted a woman named Rosmira, who has sent him (Eurimene) to challenge Arsace to a duel to restore her honor.    Partenope gets Arsace to admit that this is true, and suddenly, the decision is made - Armindo is the man for her.

The night before the duel is to take place, Partenope catches Rosmira in Arsace’s bedchamber and the two women compete in proclaiming what a faithless bastard Arsace has been. Meanwhile, Arsace struggles with the fact that he now has to fight a duel with his beloved Rosmira.  Suddenly, he realizes he has a way out.  As the challenged party to a duel, he gets to lay down the conditions.  He demands that the duel be fought with the two men shirtless.  Rosmira realizes the jig is up, and concedes.  Rosmira and Arsace patch things up, Partenope and Armindo team up, and Emilio takes his troops and returns home.  All’s well that ends well.

Handel first proposed Partenope, named for its chief character, the Queen of Naples, to the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1726, but they found it was too frivolous (no kidding), and it took four more years to bring it to the stage at the King’s Theatre,  where it ran for fourteen performances. After a brief run again in 1737, two hundred years would pass before it was revived, first, in 1964 in Scotland, then once every ten years from 1988 (Omaha) to 1998 (at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York) to 2008 (France, Australia, New York).   The current Christopher Alden production was originally done in England and Australia, before coming to San Francisco.  I am writing this after seeing the fifth of six San Francisco performances, on October 30, 2014.

It's amazing what happens to Handel when you take him off the "uplifting" shelf and set him up against raw goofiness. Suddenly, you become aware of how much beautiful melody is contained in his score. If you want to get a sample of the music, it’s available here.   And highlights are available here, but trust me, it sounds different when sung by a man with a spiked Prussian helmet with bananas on it.

Partenope comes across like a Shakespearean farce, with some serious gender-bending and deception about who is who.  It is part comic opera, part burlesque, part farce, part satire and part camp.  Three of the four men and the other woman (dressed as a man) are Partenope’s suitors; the fourth man, Ormonte, is captain of the guard in Partenope's army.

For me, the most exciting part of the evening was provided by Anthony Ross Costanzo, a countertenor making his debut at the San Francisco Opera.  (He debuted at the Met in New York in 2011.)  Costanzo, in the role of Armindo, was a master of slapstick physical comedy, doing pratfalls downstairs and singing an aria while hanging from the edge of the staircase.  In the third act he blows the audience away by unexpectedly launching into a top hat-and-cane tap dance number.  How many times have you heard an audience roar with laughter in an opera?

Costanzo has a voice that is more sweet than powerful, but it is hard to imagine a better timid yet determined Armindo.   The quality of his voice and ability to interpret Handel can be heard here, in “He was despised” from Handel’s Messiah.  

This is not Costanzo’s first big splash.  He was a hit in the role of Prospero at the Met in 2012.  He’s been singing professionally since age 11 and worked early on with the Princeton Opera Company at Princeton, from which he graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa before moving on to such roles as Prince Orlofsky (Die Fledermaus), Ferdinand and Prospero (The Enchanted Island), Tolomeo (Giulio Cesare) and appearing with major orchestras, including at Carnegie Hall.  One recent accomplishment was a kabuki presentation of the Tales of Genji in Kyoto.  

Costanzo once filled in for America’s best-known countertenor, and one of its best interpreters of baroque music, David Daniels, in the role of Prospero.  This time the two appear together, with Daniels singing the role of Arsace, and the two of them vying for the love of the title character, Partenope.  Daniels made his reputation in a number of solo recitals, including one at Carnegie Hall, and in the title role of Giulio Cesare at the Met, as well as the title role in Oscar, the opera about Oscar Wilde, put on by the opera companies in Santa Fe and Philadelphia.  And a memorable performance of Xerxes in San Francisco in 2011.  

The third major male role, Emilio, was sung by Alek Shrader, who made his debut in San Francisco in 2008 in Die Tote Stadt.  He has also sung in Elixir of Love, Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, The Tempest, Don Pasquale, La Cenerentola, Cosi fan tutte, The Rake’s Progress, Albert Herring, Alcina, L’Italiana in Algeri, The Merry Widow, Semele, and Daughter of the Regiment.  Shrader best personifies the Dada aspects of the story, coming in first as a photographer wearing a picture frame over his face, putting on a turban and dancing an erotic (and silly) dance in Act III, and receiving the wrath of Rosmira in one of her fits where she opens her blouse and chases him off the stage.

Danielle de Niese, a wonderful lyrical soprano, sings the title role of Partenope.  She plays a sexy siren of a central figure.  Her acting is convincing, her voice is gorgeous, and she makes her way through the three-plus hours from one aria to the next powerfully, yet with grace and delicacy.

Daniela Mack, as Rosmira/Eurimene, perhaps because she was carrying the burden of an unglamorous trouser role, seemed to tire as time went on, although not enough to prevent a strong and satisfying performance, as well.  She has appeared several times at the San Francisco Opera, in Die Tote Stadt, Idomeneo, Faust, Il Trittico and Barber of Seville, as well as in Switzerland, France, Chile, Japan, and in several other cities in the United States.  

Photo credits:

Philippe Sly, bass-baritone, as Ormonte
Danielle de Niese, here and in an opening scene photo
four in the salon
For an in-depth review, see what Sean Martinfield, SF cultural critic’s has to say in HuffPost.

And check out the SF Opera publicity on the opera.

For more on Anthony Ross Costanzo, check him out on YouTube singing “I Got Rhythm" or Tolomeo, from Giulio Cesare - (orchestra directed, incidently, by Placido Domingo) and doing a master class for the Princeton Opera Company, of which he is a graduate (from Enchanted Island).

Here is his web page.

And, just for something completely different, here are some boys singing like cats.

For a taste of the music of Partenope, samples of the intro and arias are available here.

Additional YouTube videos are available:

...of Danielle De Niese, whom the New York Times, called “opera’s ‘coolest soprano’”: an interview, for example. And here she is, singing "Lascia qu’io pianga" (A Handel aria, by the way) Not my favorite version of it by a long shot, “more Verdi than Handel” as one of the critics describes it, i.e., too much movement and too much tension.  And here she is singing and dancing to a Giulio Cesare number, a really awful dance number and she hits a lot of wrong notes, illustrating beautifully how much work has to go into getting a performance just right.

...of Daniela Mack

singing a number of arias in the Cardiff Singer of the World Concert in 2013 here.

...of Alek Shrader

singing a fabulous version of “Ah, mes amis” from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment here.

...of David Daniels

singing Bach's Agnus Dei here.
and Handel's Ombra mai fu here.

...and of 
Philippe Sly, bass-baritone, with some interesting comments on Handel here.

and here showing more of the beautiful quality of his voice and his presence, singing Schubert’s Erlkönig. And here he is, just for the fun of it, doing a delightful “Variation on Lily Marlène.”

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