Press

Fri, November 14, 2014

A polymath in D.C.: The long ascendancy of conductor-composer Julian Wachner
The Washington Post

“He just has a big personality, an astounding high level of energy, and an incredibly positive attitude . . . and that’s infectious,” said Dianne Peterson, the Washington Chorus’s executive director, in a recent e-mail. “His creativity in programming has attracted new audiences. Our ‘Essential Puccini’ in 2009 was an enormous success and started the ‘Essential’ series.” She added, “The singers are dazzled by his talent, his extensive knowledge, his ability to command the podium and his highly engaging approach.”

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A polymath in D.C.: The long ascendancy of conductor-composer Julian Wachner

By Anne Midgette Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

November 14 at 9:59 AM

Julian Wachner bounds up to the podium, tall and loose-limbed and eager, dark hair flopping, teeth bared in a huge smile, as energetic and eager to please as a golden retriever.

Wachner is a conductor, or a composer, or a keyboard player, depending on which week and which city you happen to pick. He comes on stage pretty much the same way, and conducts with the same big, loose, convulsive gestures, regardless. His most recent outings were in San Francisco, first as a last-minute replacement conducting the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Handel’s “Partenope,” and then in a planned debut with the Philharmonia Baroque. But you could have seen the same thing at a contemporary music concert in New York, where he’s the music director of Trinity Wall Street. And you can see his style regularly in Washington, where he’s the music director of the Washington Chorus, and where he’ll lead Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” with the group Sunday afternoon.

Diversity isn’t necessarily an advantage.

“The elite choral types are like, ‘You’re not a real choral conductor,’ Wachner, 45, said the other day, sitting outside a coffee shop in downtown Washington between his San Francisco commitments. “I have members of my own baroque orchestra who are like, ‘He’s just a tourist. This [music] isn’t all he breathes. I’ve had that my whole life. ‘He’s not a real composer. He writes Gebrauchsmusik” — that is, music designed to be used and liked, such as flashy Christmas carol arrangements for the Washington Chorus. “And then: ‘Your music’s way too hard and complicated. No one’s ever going to want to listen to it or do it.’ ”

Gradually, though, Wachner is coming into his own. When he arrived in Washington in 2008, he was bristling with nervous energy, both eager and a little defensive about his role as choral conductor. Then, in 2010, the Trinity Wall Street job came along, giving him the ability to program and perform a wide range of music, both baroque and contemporary, in the heart of New York City. “I don’t know any other performing arts organization or church program that’s like this,” Wachner says. Audiences — and music critics — have enthusiastically embraced his programming.

Then, this fall, came “Partenope,” perhaps Wachner’s highest-profile engagement to date.

“I learned the opera on the trip out,” he said. “I had the first orchestral rehearsal the next day. Which was my birthday. So they all played ‘Happy Birthday.’ And it was really perfect, because they were schmaltzing it up, and I was like, ‘Thank you so much, okay. That’s the last time you are ever going to use vibrato.’ It was such a great way to introduce that topic, because everyone laughed.” (Vibrato, the pulsing beat that’s de rigueur in performances of the standard symphonic repertoire, is not part of early-music style.)

The upshot: a positive experience; a well-received production; and the ongoing question of whether Wachner is moving onto the larger stage to which he has aspired.

He is not universally well-reviewed. His gestures, like the man, are larger than life, and sometimes a little sloppy. “Wachner put his stamp on it throughout,” wrote Joshua Kosman, in the San Francisco Chronicle review of the Philharmonia Baroque concert, “for better and worse.”

But the cellist Matt Haimovitz, a friend of Wachner’s from the conductor’s days as head of the opera department at McGill University in Montreal, praises his musicianship. “The clarity in the baton, in his expression and his gestures,” he said by phone two weeks ago, speaking of performing a new concerto for cello and choir written by Luna Pearl Woolf, Haimovitz’s wife. “He knew how to work with the singers, but I felt also as an instrumentalist the clarity of the pulse.”

“He just has a big personality, an astounding high level of energy, and an incredibly positive attitude . . . and that’s infectious,” said Dianne Peterson, the Washington Chorus’s executive director, in a recent e-mail. “His creativity in programming has attracted new audiences. Our ‘Essential Puccini’ in 2009 was an enormous success and started the ‘Essential’ series.” She added, “The singers are dazzled by his talent, his extensive knowledge, his ability to command the podium and his highly engaging approach.”

Wachner has clearly been trying to figure out how to channel his talent and intelligence since childhood. His former stepfather, Robert Cole, worked as a conductor under the likes of Stravinsky and Bernstein, before taking over the presenting organization Cal Performances. His mother, Mary Spire, is a former pianist who became an instructor in the Feldenkrais Method, a form of bodywork that promotes physical awareness and that many musicians, in particular, prize. (Wachner is now a Feldenkrais instructor). Wachner was a choir boy at the church of St. Thomas from the ages of 9 to 13, but moved away from classical music during high school in New York, instead writing for a rock band, going to clubs, and working after school at high-end delicatessens in Manhattan. “I learned how to slice nova lox the old-fashioned way,” he says.

Music soon won out. Within a few years of arriving at Boston University, Wachner was holding down posts from organist and choirmaster at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel — regularly writing new music for services as well as playing them — to music director of the Back Bay Chorale. He was active, frequently reviewed — and eventually realized that he could remain at the same level for the rest of his life. He therefore pursued the job at McGill — and a dose of humility. “I got to Montreal,” he says, “the year Yannick [Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director] became famous.”

Wachner soon acclimated to McGill, and Canada. Still, when the Washington Chorus position appeared, he was seriously considering quitting music and going into Feldenkrais full-time. Whether because of Feldenkrais, his current jobs, or marriage — his wife, Emily, is an ordained Anglican priest at Trinity, where they met — Wachner has mellowed since his D.C. arrival.

“Mellowed” is a relative term. Talking to Wachner is still like getting on a log ride at the amusement park; it’s easy and fun, and a lot of information comes at you very quickly. Just get him talking about his next piece with the Washington Chorus: Alberto Ginastera’s massive 1975 “Turbae ad Passionem Grigorianam,” which he describes as “wicked hard. It’s all twelve-tone. Gnarly.” He’ll conduct it in February at Carnegie Hall with both his choruses, and the National Cathedral’s children’s choir thrown in for good measure — 300 people on stage, he says, “which will give us at least 600 in the hall.” Then, they’ll record it, in time to release it for the Ginastera centennial in 2016.

“My mom was seven months pregnant with me when she did her master’s recital, and she played Ginastera,” Wachner says. “I think my music is informed by his music more than Bernstein. I want to do, in 2016 at Trinity, what I did with Britten” — that is, a year-long project of performing as much of the composer’s music as possible. “It’s harder [with Ginastera],” he concedes, “because all of his works are epic scale.”

“And then,” he says, after describing his Ginastera plans, “we have the little Ives Fourth on the first half,” and breaks out into a cackling roar of laughter at the audacity of performing so much great, unpopular music.

Got all that? And if you do: How can you resist going?

For all of his range of activities, Wachner is perfectly clear about what he really wants.

“When I look in the mirror,” he says, “I’m like, I’m a composer. And if I lose that, I’m screwed. And everything else has always been to support that habit.”

The Washington Chorus and Julian Wachner perform Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” on Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Kennedy Center.

Mon, November 10, 2014

Andreas Scholl and Philharmonia Baroque: Great Music Mixed With Fun
San Francisco Classical Voice

As Wachner lays out in the program notes, he favors an approach to Bach that is no longer purely rational and mathematical, or even numerological, as was de rigueur a few decades ago. Instead, he deliberately emphasizes the sensuality and the religious and human emotions in Bach’s music.

With his theatrical — in a good way — conducting style, Wachner elicited a festive, generous, and free-flowing sound from Philharmonia Baroque that resonated remarkably well in the responsive acoustic environment of San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. A PBO concert is always a pleasant experience, but this concert showed the ensemble in an even finer musical form than usual.

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Andreas Scholl and Philharmonia Baroque: Great Music Mixed With Fun

By Niels Swinkels

November 10, 2014

Nothing is more moving and uplifting than great art. Except great art that is also a party for performers and audience alike.

Because that’s what elevates it to “Great Art”.

Julian Wachner deliberately emphasizes the sensuality and the religious and human emotions in Bach’s music.

This most certainly applied to Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s Friday night concert with German countertenor Andreas Scholl and guest conductor Julian Wachner, who recently made his debut at San Francisco Opera with Handel’s opera Partenope.

Wachner kindly extended his stay in San Francisco to lead a wonderful program with PBO in which Scholl sang several of his signature arias from operas by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), as well as Bach’s Cantata No. 170.

The orchestra opened the concert with a different composition by Bach, the Sinfonia to Cantata No. 42. As Wachner lays out in the program notes, he favors an approach to Bach that is no longer purely rational and mathematical, or even numerological, as was de rigueur a few decades ago. Instead, he deliberately emphasizes the sensuality and the religious and human emotions in Bach’s music.

With his theatrical — in a good way — conducting style, Wachner elicited a festive, generous, and free-flowing sound from Philharmonia Baroque that resonated remarkably well in the responsive acoustic environment of San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. A PBO concert is always a pleasant experience, but this concert showed the ensemble in an even finer musical form than usual.

The presence of a truly gifted artist like Andreas Scholl certainly was inspiring. In his extensive solo in Bach’s cantata “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) after intermission, the magnificent countertenor gave meaning to every syllable, and purpose to every note he sang.

This was even more true in the three Handel arias he performed before intermission: “Va tacito” and “Aure, deh, per pietà” from Giulio Cesare, and “Dove sei” from Rodelinda.

The magnificent Andreas Scholl gave meaning to every syllable, and purpose to every note he sang.

The way in which Scholl deploys his unique instrument is unbelievable. Any attempt to accurately describe and give praise to the splendor of his tone, the depth of his expression, the clarity of his diction, his subtle vibrato, and his delicate use of trills and other little adornments is doomed to fall short.

For each of the Handel arias, Scholl established a specific musical-dramatic environment. In “Va tacito” he engaged in a stately vocal dance with R.J. Kelley’s accompanying part for valveless horn; in “Dove sei” he poignantly embodied the pathos of the maligned king Bertarido, singing a love anthem to his beloved Queen Rodelinda.

Especially in his encore, “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Xerxes, Scholl created such intimacy that he seemed to be singing directly to every individual audience member — which is probably what he was doing. Hearing and seeing him perform was truly a treat.

The party atmosphere stemmed directly from the symbiotic energy between conductor Julian Wachner and the musicians of Philharmonia Baroque, specifically in Telemann’s Concerto in F Major for violin, oboe and two horns, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1.

Both compositions offered plenty of solo opportunities for PBO’s wonderful wind players, but the Telemann also incorporated two cellos, buzzing like an agitated beehive, plus a very attractive solo violin part.

It was a blast.

Sat, November 8, 2014

Philharmonia review: Star soloist meets challenging conductor
San Francisco Chronicle

Wachner’s leadership throughout, but especially in the instrumental offerings, was marked by an open, full-bodied looseness that at times spilled over into fuzziness. The opening Bach Sinfonia was probably the program’s most convincing orchestral selection, with warm instrumental textures and an almost seductive rhythmic pull.

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Philharmonia review: Star soloist meets challenging conductor

Joshua Kosman | on November 8, 2014

Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra have been a single performing unit, with a single style, for so many decades now that it can be startling to hear what they sound like apart. The first moments of Friday night’s fine concert under guest conductor Julian Wachner brought just such a surprise.

The opening strains of the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata No. 42 were recognizably the work of this orchestra, with its richly colored string playing and pungent woodwinds. But Wachner’s fluid, rounded approach to rhythm and phrasing could hardly have been more different from the briskly clipped character that has always been McGegan’s hallmark.

There’s more than one way, clearly, to skin this particular cat.

Friday’s concert in Calvary Presbyterian Church was devoted to the music of Bach, Handel and Telemann, and Wachner — the innovative music director of New York’s Trinity Wall Street who just finished conducting the San Francisco Opera production of Handel’s “Partenope” — put his stamp on it throughout, for better and worse.

Yet the evening’s star attraction was the German countertenor Andreas Scholl, whose vibrant and coolly eloquent singing set the tone for the entire proceedings. In a trio of Handel arias (supplemented at the end by a glorious encore of “Ombra mai fu” from “Serse”) and again in Bach’s death-besotted Cantata No. 170, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust,” Scholl brought a blend of sweetness and emotional urgency that proved endlessly affecting.

What’s most notable about Scholl’s artistry is how deftly he balances a limpid, almost disembodied vocal tone with a robust interpretive presence that keeps that sound from seeming emotionally unconnected. In “Dove sei,” from Handel’s “Rodelinda,” Scholl’s sustained melodic lines and impeccably turned phrases captured all too poignantly the character’s distress; “Ombra mai fu” was a virtuoso display of gleaming sonority and stately rhythms.

Admittedly, the more heroic cast of “Va tacito e nascosto” from “Giulio Cesare” — an elaborately metaphorical aria depicting the hunter stalking his prey — found Scholl sometimes struggling to make himself heard. But the Bach cantata, with its alternation of vigorous, almost confrontational recitatives and sedately reflective arias, had all the immediacy of a skillfully wrought sermon.

Wachner’s leadership throughout, but especially in the instrumental offerings, was marked by an open, full-bodied looseness that at times spilled over into fuzziness. The opening Bach Sinfonia was probably the program’s most convincing orchestral selection, with warm instrumental textures and an almost seductive rhythmic pull; it contrasted with the blatty, somewhat chaotic account of the “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 1 that concluded the program.

In between, Telemann’s Concerto in F for Violin, Oboe and Two Horns offered individual members of the ensemble a chance to shine. Hornist R.J. Kelley, who had already contributed superbly shaped obbligatos to “Va tacito,” gave the audience a brief guide to the valveless horn before launching into the concerto, along with violinist Carla Moore, oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz and hornist Paul Avril.

Sat, November 8, 2014

Julian Wachner shifts his attention from SFO to Philharmonia Baroque
Classical Music Examiner

At the end of the generously lengthy program that visiting conductor Julian Wachner brought to the podium of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, which performed last night in Calvary Presbyterian Church, he launched into Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1046 “Brandenburg” concerto in F major (the first) at a breakneck pace. This was not a matter of mere athleticism. Rather, it was Wachner’s way of putting the cap on an evening in which he continued those same practices of execution that made his musical leadership of six performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope for San Francisco Opera (SFO) such a delight…

...nothing could match the bizarre rhythmic eccentricities that Wachner brought to the Polacca section at the end of BWV 1046, pulling at what is normally a routine 6/8 pulse as if it were taffy and lending an extra kick to the forte disruption of the second section of the movement.

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Julian Wachner shifts his attention from SFO to Philharmonia Baroque

by Stephen Smoliar

At the end of the generously lengthy program that visiting conductor Julian Wachner brought to the podium of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, which performed last night in Calvary Presbyterian Church, he launched into Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1046 “Brandenburg” concerto in F major (the first) at a breakneck pace. This was not a matter of mere athleticism. Rather, it was Wachner’s way of putting the cap on an evening in which he continued those same practices of execution that made his musical leadership of six performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope for San Francisco Opera (SFO) such a delight.

Those practices involved just the right balance between a comprehensive understanding of execution techniques with a commitment to honor the expressiveness behind the notes themselves to the fullest. Rather than a race to the finish, the performance of BWV 1046 was an ebullient celebration of the very act of individuals gathering together to make music, as they most likely did at the court of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen (possibly with the prince joining them) or later in the more bourgeois setting of Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. BWV 1046 also concluded a survey of expressiveness in different musical settings, which included both the secular and sacred sides of Bach, the operatic world of Handel, and a virtuoso concerto by their compatriot George Philipp Telemann.

This was an evening that favored solo voices, both vocal and instrumental, performing in the setting of a highly reduced string section and continuo. The soloist who received the most attention was visiting countertenor Andreas Scholl. He accounted for Handel’s share of the program with selections from the HWV 17 Giulio Cesare and the HWV 19 Rodelinda. From HWV 17 he performed two arias sung by Cesare, in which first he prepares to confront his enemies in the spirit of a hunt (complete with the obligatory pair of horns played by R. J. Kelley and Paul Avril) and later finds himself facing defeat with darker introspection. That same introspection also pervades Bertarido’s opening aria in HWV 19 (when the audience discovers that rumors of his death were premature).

Each of these was a highly personal aria, and Scholl found just the right level of assertiveness to fit the character of each of them. His chemistry with both Wachner and the instrumentalists was always right on target, while delivering all of the required expressiveness for the most dramatic selections on the program. During the second half of the evening, he transplanted that expressiveness into the sacred domain with Bach’s solo alto cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul, BWV 170). That rest is, of course, death. However, Scholl’s account was anything but maudlin, dwelling, instead, on the Lutheran idea of death as the much-needed rest after the toils of a life well spent.

The energy of BWV 1046 could thus be taken as a more upbeat reflection on the concept of conclusion, complementing the enthusiastic energy level of the opening selection of the evening, the instrumental sinfonia that begins the BWV 42 cantata. Indeed, in the spirit of BWV 1046, this sinfonia amounted to a concerto in miniature, featuring the solo work of two oboes (Gonzalo X. Ruiz and Marc Schachman) and a bassoon (Danny Bond) “conversing” with the string ensemble. This concertante style also filled the middle of the program with Telemann’s TWV 54:F1 concerto for violin (Carla Moore), oboe (Ruiz), and two horns (Kelley and Avril). Structured around the dance forms of a suite, this was a feast of virtuoso solo work that paired nicely with BWV 1046. Still, nothing could match the bizarre rhythmic eccentricities that Wachner brought to the Polacca section at the end of BWV 1046, pulling at what is normally a routine 6/8 pulse as if it were taffy and lending an extra kick to the forte disruption of the second section of the movement.

As might be guessed, audience enthusiasm for Scholl was rewarded with an encore. Following his Bach solo work, he returned to Handel, performing “Ombra mai fu,” the opening aria from the HWV 40 Serse. While the overall tone of this opera is comic, the aria is a serene serenade such by Xerxes to his favorite plane tree, conceived to remind the audience of how precious shade was in a desert setting.

As was the case on Thursday night with the San Francisco Symphony, this concert had a pre-performance talk produced in partnership with The Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Last night’s speaker was Heidi Waleson, opera critic for The Wall Street Journal. While her topic was the “mainstreaming” of early music, she managed to weave a fair amount of introductory material for the works on the program into her text. Nevertheless, her dry academic delivery contrasted sharply with all that overflowing joy in making music that made last night’s concert both exciting and satisfying.

Mon, November 3, 2014

Julian Wachner’s approach to Handel perfectly complements the SFO production
Classical Music Examiner

I have already noted how Wachner’s pacing of the orchestra excellently complemented the rapid-fire comic turns of Alden’s staging, complete with drunk scenes, pratfalls, bathroom humor, and tap dancing. This is definitely the shortest three and one-half hour opera I have ever experienced. I was also impressed with his ability to balance the modern instruments of a reduced string section and oboes (with a few brief moments for flutes) with the historical instruments, which included two harpsichords, theorbo, and two natural horns…

...What I could better appreciate from my new vantage point was how well Wachner connected with all of the vocalists on stage. It was through his chemistry with each of the performers that the music came off with the intimacy of a piece of chamber music that happened to have more musicians than usual.

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Julian Wachner’s approach to Handel perfectly complements the SFO production

by Stephen Smoliar

the new San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope half-way through its six-performance run, I was almost entirely absorbed by the ingenuity and wit (often at the belly-laugh level) of Christopher Alden’s staging, originally created for the English National Opera and also shared with Opera Australia. Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for the final SFO performance, taking my subscriber’s seat that provides me with as rich a view of the orchestra pit as of the stage. This gave me an opportunity to appreciate better the contributions of conductor Julian Wachner.

I have already noted how Wachner’s pacing of the orchestra excellently complemented the rapid-fire comic turns of Alden’s staging, complete with drunk scenes, pratfalls, bathroom humor, and tap dancing. This is definitely the shortest three and one-half hour opera I have ever experienced. I was also impressed with his ability to balance the modern instruments of a reduced string section and oboes (with a few brief moments for flutes) with the historical instruments, which included two harpsichords, theorbo, and two natural horns. My only regret was that the horns did not do more. Their major appearance came at the end of the first act with a metaphorical hunting song delivered by Rosmira-as-Eurimene (Daniela Mack at her most splendid); and the sounds of those natural harmonics, tempered only by breath control, made the experience both chilling and consistent with the off-kilter tone of Alden’s production.

What I could better appreciate from my new vantage point was how well Wachner connected with all of the vocalists on stage. It was through his chemistry with each of the performers that the music came off with the intimacy of a piece of chamber music that happened to have more musicians than usual. This was not always an easy job. Emilio (tenor Alek Shrader) had to deliver one aria while trapped in a bathroom; and Armindo (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) had to negotiate some of the most elaborate embellishments while hanging on for dear life to the edge of a staircase. (Needless to say, having a countertenor sing one of Handel’s most richly coloratura arias while playing a drunk scene is more than enough to boggle the mind.)

Wachner also made some shrewd choices in allowing certain solo instruments to fill the entire space of the Opera House. I was particularly impressed at the number of recitative passages that were accompanied only by Michael Leopold’s theorbo. Peter Schickele used to make jokes about the inaudibility of the lute. The theorbo is much larger. (Anyone sitting on orchestra level can only see its neck sticking out above all the other musicians in the pit.) In addition to the usual rank of strings fingered through the fretwork, there are long bass strings that are only plucked; and they resonate with remarkable intensity. Leopold’s continuo work was often all that was required for the intimate scale of the verbal exchanges in the recitatives.

Also, it appeared that continuo cellist David Kadarauch was given a rest for the one aria that had an extended cello solo. Unless I am mistaken, that solo was taken by Victoria Ehrlich, a musician many readers may recognize from the Music in the Mishkan chamber music series organized by Randall Weiss at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. I assume that it was Wachner’s idea that the “voice” of the cello for this aria be different from the “continuo voice,” thus establishing a different relationship between solo vocalist and solo musician.

All this made for one of the richest operatic occasions I have had the pleasure to experience. Indeed, it was so rich that it was almost impossible to balance attention between the music and the staging. This was definitely an occasion that deserved coming back for a second time.

Tue, October 28, 2014

A Witty, Colorful, Extravagant Partenope
Seen and Heard International

And none of the shenanigans affected the music, with refined and idiomatic Baroque singing all around. The orchestra offered refreshingly unmannered playing led by conductor Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts at New York City’s Trinity Wall Street, where he conducts both the contemporary and Baroque orchestras.

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A Witty, Colorful, Extravagant Partenope

by Harvey Steiman

October 28, 2014

A Händel opera can be a daunting proposition for those accustomed to the more varied and emotionally lifted styles of operas that came later. But plenty of examples can prove that there’s a lot more to Händel than one aria in “A-B-A” form, repeated several times with increasing ornamentation. The music can get to an emotional truth while it entertains with every-increasing roulades and complexity, not to mention the unusual sound of a counter tenor (or two) accompanied by light orchestration that relies on harpsichords, theorbos and the occasional splash of musical color from valveless horns and oboes.

Partenope may not have as many memorable arias as, say, Giulio Cesare or Xerxes, but it has its musical charms. For the San Francisco Opera, an impressive cast did justice to every musical gesture while gamely, inventively—and often effectively—using their bodies in unexpected ways in director Christopher Alden’s blithely surreal production.

First seen in 2008 at English National Opera, this staging updates the complicated comedic plot from the city-state of Naples to a salon in 1920s Paris. Instead of the queen’s chambers, it’s set in the salon of a louche socialite who likes to surround herself with artists. Everyone, to put it bluntly, has the hots for someone.

The original version revolves around a love affair gone wrong between two visitors to Queen Partenope, the founder of Naples—Arsace (prince of Corinth, and the queen’s current lover) and the mysterious Eurimene, who is actually Rosmira in disguise, intent on avenging her bitter breakup with Arsace. To complicate matters, the two other men are there to pursue the queen—Emilio (prince of Comae, who has brought his army with him to back up his intent to marry her) and the painfully shy Armindo (prince of Rhodes, who can’t bring himself to declare his love to the queen). And then there’s Ormonte, the queen’s major domo.

Updating all this to a social circle in Paris—one mad for artists who push the envelope of propriety—fits the plot and opens the door to a panoply of physical shtick inspired by the excesses of surrealist art. As Emliio, tenor Alec Shrader dons a Man Ray mask and wanders the stage photographing the other participants. As Rosmira/Eurimene, mezzo soprano Daniela Mack performs a sort of strip tease taunting Emilio. As Armindo, counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sings arias without missing a note as he crawls up a spiral staircase, dangles from the edge in homage to the silent film comic actor Harold Lloyd, climbs through a water closet transom and, in Act III, tap dances, complete with top hat and cane. Bass-baritone Philip Sly emerges as Partenope’s exuberantly gay pal, at one point serving as a duelist, clad in a pink frock with an extra-wide bustle.

As Partenope, soprano Danielle De Niese sings her arias while showing off her tightly clothed form clubbing onto tables, chairs and, at one point, astride Arsace. As played by counter tenor David Daniels, he’s the one character who avoids physical histrionics.

All of this could have sent the proceedings way over the top, and for some fuddy-duddies no doubt it did. But the audience, in the fourth of six performances, lapped it up. And none of the shenanigans affected the music, with refined and idiomatic Baroque singing all around. The orchestra offered refreshingly unmannered playing led by conductor Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts at New York City’s Trinity Wall Street, where he conducts both the contemporary and Baroque orchestras.

The standouts for me were Costanzo and Mack. Both delivered their arias with eye-opening precision, brilliantly executed coloratura and clear, pure sound, while creating flesh-and-blood characters that often touched our deepest emotions. Daniels sang languid laments with his customary panache and beautiful tone, and served as a center of gravity to the loopiness around him. Shrader poured out unforced fioratura in a silvery tenor, and threw himself into a surreal characterization. Sly handled his two arias with such aplomb it left some of us wishing he had more to do.

That leaves De Niese. Opening-night reviews were not all kind to her, but in this performance she had total command of the stage and, if her Baroque technique lacked the precision of some of the other cast members, the molten copper sound of her voice and the unrestrained sexuality of her presence created a character that believably could create a band of followers in thrall to her.

As with any true comedy, the plot wraps up with everyone paired off with the “right” partner—in this case gay, straight and painfully shy. The combination of exuberant staging, fearless singing and sprightly playing produced enough fizz to keep 3-1/2 hours of Händel’s more genial music sailing along. Who couldn’t smile?

Sat, October 25, 2014

San Francisco Opera: Handel’s Partenope
Operaville

Conductor Julian Wachner, an early-music specialist making his SFO debut, is a marvel to watch, working without a baton and often seeming more like a dancer than a conductor. The effects of the period instruments are captivating, particularly the horns in Rosmira’s hunting-themed aria.

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San Francisco Opera: Handel's Partenope

by Michael J. Vaughn

Those concerned about the relevance of opera in the 21st century should see this English/Australian production, in which director Christopher Alden took a lesser-known baroque opera and gave it such a wildly imaginative treatment that it won an Olivier Award for Best New Production. The Olivier Award is the British equivalent of a Tony. A theater award. For a baroque opera.

What Alden and cohorts apparently saw beneath the melismas and da capos was a story, based on Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, that presents a bracingly intimate buffet of the several combinations of power and love. As a Pat Benatar song, it would be “Love is a Battlefield.” Indeed, the actual physical battles of the original story are transformed into sexual face-offs, which is really what they were to begin with.
A quick sketch of the action would reveal the queen, Partenope, as the target of three suitors: the aggressive Emilio, the meek Armindo, and the moderate Arsace. The initial winner is Arsace, mainly because Partenope is in love with him. Naturally, there are complications.

Alden’s first stroke of genius is to remove the action from ancient Greece to 1920s Paris, and to make all the characters into members of the Surrealist art movement. This serves to make the characters more accessible to modern viewers, and to open the door to all kinds of wackiness (once you’ve played the Surrealist card, you can get away with anything). The most identifiable inspiration is Emilio, who is based on the photographer Man Ray, which leads to all kinds of visual possibilities.

The second stroke of genius is Alden’s demand that his singers – baroque virtuosi all – perform all manner of weird actions to illustrate their predicaments. Finding himself locked in a bathroom after a failed attempt at seduction, Emilio (tenor Alek Shrader) climbs to the upper window and, dangling across the opening, lights and smokes a cigarette, all without interrupting the marathon runs of his aria. The mere mention of his beloved’s name causes Armindo (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) to lose control of his limbs; he falls down a spiral staircase and, later, dangles in mid-air from the side of it, all without missing a note of his melismas. Later, when matters improve for him, he performs a song of triumph while tapdancing.

The genius of all this “stage business,” besides causing general hilarity, is that it solves a basic problem of Handel’s operas. The endless melismatic runs, invented as a show of virtuosity, are just not all that enjoyable to listen to. That’s why they didn’t make it out of the baroque era (and were replaced, in a sense, by the Rossinian patter song). The classical/romantic cadenza became a much more agreeable way to showcase a singer’s skills. In this production, the singers take the virtuosity to such a Cirque de Soleil level that the spectator has no time to feel irritated, or to worry about singers needing scuba-level breathing techniques to get through the next twelve measures.

What fares better, at least in Partenope, are Handel’s slower arias. Faced with his former lover’s refusal to forgive his sins, Arsace sings a gorgeous, yearning aria about her cruelty, revealing the exquisitely haunting quality of David Daniels’ countertenor. Playing that spurned lover, Rosmira (mezzo Daniela Mack) delivers many similarly touching passages.
The showpiece comes from soprano Danielle De Niese, who is goddess-like in every way. Wearing top hat and tails, she declares her love (and lust) for Arsace in a very public manner, indulging in Fosse-like vamps and humping her way through Handel’s rhythmic shifts, creating the sexiest performance of a baroque aria that one is likely to see. She also is very successful (with Stampiglia’s surprising libretto) in transforming Partenope from a predictable attention-whore to a full-fledged woman, pursuing the deeper bonds of soulmatehood.

Andrew Lieberman’s sets are spectacular, and applause-inducing, particularly the stylish, blinding-white interior that opens the performance. Costume designer Jon Morrell plays off of this canvas by dressing his cast members in single-color suits, with the exception of the uber-camp servant Ormonte (Philippe Sly), whose final outfit resembles a Samurai as done by Hello Kitty. Conductor Julian Wachner, an early-music specialist making his SFO debut, is a marvel to watch, working without a baton and often seeming more like a dancer than a conductor. The effects of the period instruments are captivating, particularly the horns in Rosmira’s hunting-themed aria. The production team cut eight vocal numbers, sparing the audience from a performance that would otherwise have lasted for over four hours.

Through Nov. 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$370, http://www.sfopera.com 415/8,64-3330.
 

Fri, October 24, 2014

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo—A Stunning Debut in ‘Partenope’ at San Francisco Opera
The Huffington Post

Julian Wachner, a stellar figure in the world of early music, conducts the orchestra which is now more in view. The tone is crystalline, transcendent. Wachner drives the shape and momentum of the score’s “too many notes” to perfection.

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Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo -- A Stunning Debut in 'Partenope' at San Francisco Opera

by Sean Martinfield, San Francisco cultural critic

Posted: 10/24/2014 5:34 pm EDT Updated: 10/24/2014 5:59 pm EDT

San Francisco Opera's current production of Handel's 1730 comedy, Partenope -- now transported to a high-toned Parisian salon in the 1920s -- is an intoxicating whirlwind of fresh air. Directed by Christopher Alden, Partenope is the most desirable musical (maybe game) ticket of the season. Alden's concept is stupendous. The director maneuvers Handel's collection of immoderate misfits through a series of lofty schemes and quandaries -- a sextet of polished pandemonium -- for three-and-a-half hours.

The show is perfectly cast. The performers color the frosty-white setting with ravishing mood swings, sizzling comic timing and coloratura gymnastics that spin on a dime. Julian Wachner, a stellar figure in the world of early music, conducts the orchestra which is now more in view. The tone is crystalline, transcendent. Wachner drives the shape and momentum of the score's "too many notes" to perfection. This is a Partenope -- an alluring siren born out of Greek mythology -- that can turn every head and tune every ear toward a whole new world. Baroque opera is blooming in the 21st Century.

I met with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo the day after the opening night performance. Anthony sings Armindo -- one of three suitors jockeying for the hand of Partenope (Danielle De Niese), here a glamorous fashionista of the Jazz Age. Arsace (countertenor David Daniels) is Armindo's chief rival -- along with the determined Emilio (tenor, Alek Shrader) who is skulking his way into first position. As fellow artists, Daniels and Costanzo appeared together in 2012 at Michigan Opera Theatre as Caesar and Tolomeo in Handel's Giulio Cesare. In December that year they were in the Met's production of The Enchanted Island -- David as Prospero, Anthony as Ferdinand. He would later assume the role of Prospero when Daniels became ill.

"When I was a teenager," said Anthony, "David Daniels was having his big moment. I remember his profile in Opera News. That had a big impact in my thinking about how this might be a career path. Countertenor is the term that blankets everything -- whereas with sopranos, you can call them a lyric, spinto or dramatic. That said, I really don't have a classification in terms of register. There are some countertenors who are singing crazy high notes. I'm not a male soprano. I sang High C as Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus at the Met this season. I've done roles that sit very low, such as Henze's Phaedra where I went way down into the baritone range. Through a diversity of experience I've learned how to negotiate different registers of the voice. I'm sort of a bargain countertenor in that sense -- like PDQ Bach."

Now 32, weighing-in at around 125 pounds, Anthony Roth Costanzo has accumulated an impressive resumé of Baroque roles. He is now in collaboration with contemporary composers writing music for him. At age eleven, he was Jason in the Broadway National Tour of Falsettos. At thirteen, things began churning when he appeared at Lincoln Center in a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors followed by his interpretation of Miles in Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw at the New Jersey Opera Festival.

"Because I had hair on my arms and a low speaking voice," said Anthony, "the opera people sort-of said that maybe I had gone through puberty and was a countertenor. I didn't know what a countertenor was! But I thought if I could continue singing high -- which I think most boy sopranos who have had a career want to keep doing -- then that's what I'll do. When I was in grad school at Manhattan School of Music, I started to understand which companies and which young artist programs would make it work. I was very fortunate to have won a lot of competitions where the judges would have preferred to have heard a Verdi aria than one by Handel. In that context, I had to find a way to make the Handel compelling."

"I was able to be a part of this resurgence of Baroque music, but also have my own voice and find a way to make it exciting for audiences who are still biased to not love this repertoire. I'm working with eight different contemporary composers now who are writing things for me or that we're working on projects together. It means extending my technique and learning how to use all my different registers in different ways -- not just for Handel or Gluck. I'm really excited to be premiering Jake Heggie's new opera. It's called Great Scott -- with Joyce DiDonato, Frederica von Stade, and Nathan Gunn. Terrence McNally has written the libretto. He's created a diva, Arden Scott, who is coming back to her hometown to revive a dead bel canto opera. It's a comedy and I think it's going to be really fun."

Anthony was born in North Carolina and moved to New York about twenty years ago. His parents, both psychologists, are native New Yorkers who teach at Duke University. They were very supportive, he says, though not stage parents in any way. I suggested that somewhere in this history is a roaring comedy about a pair of shrinks with a precocious son running super-high scales and heading straight towards the Eighteenth Century.

"It's true! They always said, 'You want to do this, we'll make it happen for you.' It might have been hard for a thirteen year old boy to sing in essentially a woman's range, but it was never an issue. My mom is someone who has worked a lot with gender and studied that. But it was always 'do what you want to do and make it feel natural'. They'll be here next week to see this production."

"I would live in this period of the Twenties. It's so much fun to be in it -- for four hours at a time. On top of that, I think Christopher Alden has very cleverly exploited the satire in Handel's opera, to make for wonderful and almost vaudeville moments -- especially for my character. Armindo is withdrawn, brooding, and neurotic. But he has these Buster Keaton moments of physical comedy, like falling down a flight of stairs and a tap dancing sequence in Act III. I just do it -- and it works. It's been a fun challenge to make sure the singing stays at the highest level. You know? Making your debut at San Francisco Opera?"

Thu, October 23, 2014

Partenope: Can you Handel it?
The Bay Area Reporter

Conductor Julian Wachner in his SFO debut keeps things moving right along, while highlighting some very pleasing detail. If you think Baroque opera isn’t your cup of tea, Partenope just might change your mind and switch you to champagne.

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Partenope: Can you Handel it?

Published 10/23/2014

by Philip Campbell

The San Francisco Opera's latest foray into the challenging and musically rich world of Baroque opera opened last week with George Frideric Handel's Partenope. The well-cast, attractive, and exceptionally witty production, first staged at English National Opera in 2008, won an Olivier award as Best New Opera Production in 2009, and it has obviously held up well during the interim.

Christopher Alden's marvelously stylish, often risque and endlessly inventive direction moves Handel's rarely performed romantic comedy forward in time some 200 years to the glittering 1920s Paris of salons, Surrealists and sexual ambiguity. There are lots of references to the art world of the Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, and especially American modernist Man Ray, that sleekly define the look of the production (set designer: Andrew Lieberman) and allow some surprisingly timeless and insightful looks into the moral ambiguity of the confused (and often confusing) characters.

Handel's libretto surrounds the titular (oh-la-la) soprano role with a collection of suitors – one of whom is a woman dressed as a man – keeping tabs on one another; a handsome prince who has left her at the altar; one who starts as her sworn enemy; and a would-be Casanova who hasn't the courage to tell her. Sounds more like Offenbach than Handel, and Alden picks up on the deliciously sly possibilities with every trick and physical joke he can find appropriate to the period.

The Roaring 1920s certainly keep Partenope's busy salon energized with le jazz hot. Martinis, the Charleston, voguish posing, and visual takes borrowed from the cinema of Harold Lloyd and glamorous Hollywood musicals fill the stage with amusing detail. It takes awhile for the audience to match the musical content to the direction, but by the time the final curtain falls, everyone is in synch with the amazing matchup. Alden is naughty, brilliant and sometimes a little adolescent in his humor, but the whole concept works to clarify a sometimes bewildering but good-hearted story about the war between the sexes, and the battle between reason and emotion.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with soprano Danielle de Niese returning to the War Memorial in a deserved starring role, and favorite countertenor David Daniels looking and sounding terrific as her preferred suitor. There are some delightful standouts in the rest of the ensemble, notably tenor Alek Shrader as Partenope's enemy-turned-supporter, and most especially countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo making his SFO debut in a part that makes both extraordinary physical and vocal demands.

Mezzo Daniela Mack as the jilted Rosmira looks convincing in drag despite the pencil moustache, and she is also obviously at home in a real girl's dress after the, how shall we put it?, reveal in Act III. Her voice is steady and full-bodied, and her acting is believable. Like all the characters, Mack's Rosmira gets plenty of opportunity to show off, and she nails her arias with rich tone and crisp ornamentation.

Shrader also has a fine voice that combines both power and purity. He proves himself to be adept at physical comedy, whether lying on his back in a yoga posture or singing one of his difficult arias through the transom window above a locked water-closet door.

Cute-as-a-button Anthony Roth Costanzo beats him with arias sung while falling upstairs, tap dancing like Fred Astaire, and declaring his love shirtless from a balcony. He also isn't afraid to customize his voice to the part, injecting a whining nasal quality that clearly isn't his natural sound.

As the captain of Partenope's guards, current Adler Fellow Philippe Sly is changed here to be her gay best friend, and while he gets fewer moments in the spotlight, he is always an attraction. Wait till you see his get-up before the duel in Act III!

Of course, we have come to expect elegance and excellence in David Daniels' Handel performances, and he doesn't disappoint. His Arsace has some of the loveliest music in the score, and he relishes every moment with an often-wistful quality that touches our hearts.

Danielle de Niese has the looks and vocal allure to make Partenope a signature role, and despite a few (really only a few) moments of slight breathiness at the top of her register, she sails through the long evening looking and sounding every bit the glamorous vamp.

Conductor Julian Wachner in his SFO debut keeps things moving right along, while highlighting some very pleasing detail. If you think Baroque opera isn't your cup of tea, Partenope just might change your mind and switch you to champagne.

Thu, October 23, 2014

Life Can Be Such A Drag
My Cultural Landscape

Conductor Julian Wachner kept the opera’s momentum moving forward without ever overpowering his singers.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Life Can Be Such A Drag

by George Heymont

It's that time of year again. October in San Francisco always evokes images in a resident's mind of:

The Blue Angels buzzing around the Bay during Fleet Week.
Sailors clad in dress whites who (in the post "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era) can freely socialize in gay bars where their presence will please a population that loves the sight of a man in uniform.
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall all lit up to look like a giant pumpkin.

Busy costume preparations for Halloween celebrations.
The sudden onslaught of pumpkin-flavored  everything.
San Francisco City Hall basking in the glow of orange lighting.

This month, two of the Civic Center's stages are awash in gender confusion. Over at the War Memorial Opera House two countertenors appearing in traditional male costumes must cope with a confused mezzo-soprano seeking revenge in yet another trouser role. Meanwhile, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, one of the Bay area's most talented drag artists is holding center stage in the kind of hysterical farce in which one of the more clueless characters is described as "an 11-inch dong that deserves to have my luggage tags hanging from it" and, to everyone's relief, subtlety is on sabbatical.

* * * * * * * * *
The San Francisco Opera is presenting the company premiere of George Frideric Handel's romantic farce, Partenope, which had its premiere in London some 284 years ago on February 24, 1730. The opera's American premiere did not take place until 1988, when it was staged by Opera Omaha (in 1998 it was co-produced by the Glimmerglass Festival and the New York City Opera).

The current production, directed by Christopher Alden, originated as a co-production between the English National Opera (where it premiered in October of 2008) and Opera Australia, which subsequently staged the work in Melbourne and Sydney. It may be the only operatic production whose press notes include a statement that "singing from behind the bathroom door is slightly amplified."

Heavily influenced by the Dadaism and Surrealism movements of the early 20th century, the opera's plot has been updated to a 1920s Parisian salon where parties and card games are hosted by Partenope (who, in the original version, is the Queen of Naples). While everyone loves Partenope, she's not always sure whose love she can trust or, for that matter, whose love is worth reciprocating. As a result, much of the opera's action is based on misguided lovers chasing after those who either should not or can not return their affection. As Alden notes:

"Partenope is a subversive, urban, gender-defying work that is witty but, at the same time, raises questions about societal assumptions. The libretto turns the norm around so that the powerful monarch in this piece is a woman. The men are all vying for her political/romantic favors and, like anyone in power, Partenope can never be sure whether these people are attracted to her or her power. Handel takes that from the story and writes music that makes her a fascinating, sympathetic, three-dimensional character.

There's a very camp aspect to Handel's operas, especially this piece. It can't be proven that Handel was gay, but he was an unmarried man who chose to live in a sophisticated city, who had unmarried male friends in his circle and his relationship with powerful divas was a big part of his life. The idea is not to airlift the piece into a specific modern context. It's a very open-ended visual context that allows the audience to focus on the relationships and on the text and the music."

Over the years, Alden's productions have been known for their gimmickry. Although his Partenope employs all kinds of modern touches from toilet humor to tap dancing (and has characters freely throw glasses and bananas against the walls), each sight gag is carefully calibrated to frame a character's motivation, frustration, and sense of inadequacy or rage. The audience around me chuckled in glee at many of Alden's gimmicks, clearly enjoying a night of Handel more than they had ever anticipated.

When push comes to shove, the quality of the singing is one of the biggest concerns in any production of a Handel opera. While strong performances came from mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (doubling as Rosmira and Eurimene) and countertenor David Daniels as Arsace (the lover who humped Rosmira and then callously dumped her after falling for Partenope's charms), I was shocked by the mushy coloratura work that compromised so much of tenor Alek Shrader's performance as Emilio. Baritone Philippe Sly's Ormonte (both in and out of drag) added a nice sense of balance to the ensemble.

Much of Alden's production requires singers who can not only act, but can move like dancers. Danielle De Niese had a luscious, intensely feminine appeal in the title role (wearing Jon Morrell's costumes with a rare sense of style and grace). As far as I'm concerned, however, the evening's top honors went to countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who, as the timid and lovesick Armindo, not only sang magnificently but handled his tap dancing chores and pratfalls as if he had been born to physical comedy (not something one can say about most opera singers).

I was particularly taken with Andrew Lieberman's set designs for this production. Conductor Julian Wachner kept the opera's momentum moving forward without ever overpowering his singers. Here's some footage from San Francisco Opera's production of Partenope:

* * * * * * * * *
For nearly two-thirds of the 20th century, the Cunard Steamship Company was the dominant brand in transatlantic travel. Long before Cunard Line became a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the company's advertising campaigns were based on the simple slogan: "Getting There Is Half The Fun!"

That motto could easily be applied to Act I of the New Conservatory Theatre Center's production of Charles Busch's stage farce, Die, Mommie, Die! (which, at its 1999 premiere in Los Angeles, was subtitled The Fall of the House of Sussman). For Act II, let me quote Alan Yuhas's take on the opening night performance of the Metropolitan Opera's controversial production of The Death of Klinghoffer: "It had all the deft touch of a sledgehammer."

Believe it or not, that's a compliment for Die, Mommie Die!'s director, F. Allen Sawyer, who has taken Busch's catty romp and used it as a template for the best kind of camp madness. Set in 1967, the plot revolves around a toxic Beverly Hills family whose lust for wretched excess is, at the very least, excessive. With references to numerous bitch fest B-movies from the 1950s as well as an ancient Greek tragedy, the cast of characters includes:

Sol Sussman (Joe Wicht), a fabled Hollywood producer whose luck at the box office has run dry. Head over heels in debt to the mob, Sol has been unable to finance his artistic dream of having Elizabeth Taylor star in a biopic about Billie Holiday. To make matters worse, a private detective has confirmed Sol's wife's infidelity (she's been screwing her sexy tennis instructor). Meanwhile, Sol's constipation has become the bane of this angry old Jew's existence.
Edith Sussman (Ali Haas), Sol's father-worshipping, mother-hating, Electra-like daughter who has some unresolved issues of her own to deal with.
Lance Sussman (Devin S. O'Brien), Sol's ditsy gay son who has been experimenting with drugs, finding new ways to express himself in a college theatre department, and can be obsessively captivated by the pull-chain switch on a table lamp in the family's living room.

Angela Arden (J. Conrad Frank), Sol's diva-like wife who is desperately hoping to make a comeback on the cabaret circuit and has even landed a contract to perform in a small hotel in the Catskills.
Tony Parker (Justin Liszanckie), the not-very-bright gigolo who has been shtupping Angela while trying to convince her to move to New York with him where he hopes to resurrect his acting career. Tony is more than willing to put his hefty endowment to use titillating Edith and Lance if the ends will justify the means.
Bootsie Carp (Marie O'Donnell), the wise-cracking Thelma Ritter-like maid who, for years, has been dividing her affection between her employer and Richard Nixon.

Clues drop with a resounding thud throughout Busch's play.

Who knew that Angela had such skill at throwing knives and scissors? 
Or that she could be driven to murder Sol with a silvery suppository (the size of an extra-large burrito) that had been laced with arsenic?
Why would Angela recoil at the sight of the LP recording she once made with her long-deceased identical twin, Barbara?
And why does Angela deliver so many lines as if she were channeling Bette Davis in Act II?

Thanks to her enterprising children (who slip some LSD into Angela's evening cup of coffee), plenty of secrets are revealed against the background of Kuo-Hao Lo's deliciously vulgar unit set. While many may assume that the role of Angela would forever belong to its creator, Charles Busch, New Conservatory Theatre Center has triumphantly cast J. Conrad Frank as Angela.

Over the years, Mr. Frank has been perfecting his own cabaret act as the failed Russian opera diva, Countess Katya Smirnoff-Skyy (who is now forced to work at the cosmetics counter in Macy's). With a series of gowns designed by "Mr. David," the statuesque Mr. Frank dominates the stage in the manner of a performer who knows his way around high camp, low morals, divine outfits, and operatic posturing. His comic timing is rock solid. His Angela knows how to milk a line (as well as Tony Parker's prized piece of anatomy) like a champ.

Although far more sinister than Madame Arcati's séance in Blithe Spirit, Angela's Act II acid trip is every bit as hilarious and revealing. In a comedy built to showcase and revolve around a fading star, Mr. Frank knows how to work Angela's diminishing force of gravity for all it's worth. The rest of the cast orbits around her with maniacal glee, with particularly energetic performances coming from Ali Haas and Devin S. O'Brien as Angela's scheming children. I also very much enjoyed Marie O'Donnell's performance as Bootsie.

Performances of Die, Mommie, Die! continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through November 2 (click here to order tickets).

Wed, October 22, 2014

Christopher Alden’s staging enlivens San Francisco Opera’s new Handel production
Classical Music Examiner

That expert pacing was also due, in no small part, to the conducting technique of Julian Wachner, making his SFO debut. Like our own Nicholas McGegan leading the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Wachner takes a spirited approach to conducting Handel, working without a baton and always using his hands expressively to give each phrase its own characteristic shape.

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Christopher Alden’s staging enlivens San Francisco Opera’s new Handel production

by Stephen Smoliar

Sitting in the War Memorial Opera House last night during the new San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope (originally created by the English National Opera and Opera Australia), I realized that I was getting on to twenty years of going regularly to SFO performances. I also realized that, over that period, I had been exposed to some of the most refreshing interpretations of operas by both Handel and Claudio Monteverdi that I had encountered over a lifetime of opera-going. This was particularly evident almost exactly three years ago, when for the first time I saw a staging of Xerxes (HWV 40) that played up the plot for all of its comic value. Just about all of the operas from the eighteenth century and earlier appreciated the popularizing value of inserting at least one humorous episode within even the darkest tragedy (a technique William Shakespeare grasped with masterful results); but there was something comforting in discovering that Handel knew how to relish full-out comedy.

Partenope is very much comedy in the Shakespearean tradition, even if the Bard had no hand in the libretto. (We do not know who wrote the libretto for Partenope. We know it was an adaptation of a libretto of the same title by Silvio Stampiglia written in 1699. Antonio Caldara provided music for that libretto in an opera that Handel may have seen in Venice in 1710.) The plot is a romantic comedy first complicated by characters in disguise and eventually resolved as their true identities are revealed. The title character is the founding Queen of Naples; and, over the course of the narrative, she is pursued by four of the five remaining characters. (The fifth, Ormonte, is not identified but is most likely a courtier or possibly a servant.)

Among all of her suitors, Partenope’s favorite is Arsace, Prince of Corinth. What she does not know, however, is that Arsace abandoned Rosmira, to whom he was presumably betrothed. Thus, one of the other suitors, Eurimene, who presents himself as a shipwrecked Armenian prince, is actually Rosmira in disguise. Over the course of the plot, Rosmira not only recovers Arsace but helps Armindo, Prince of Rhodes, to win Partenope’s hand through a series of complications and resolutions that could have fit right into Shakespeare’s As You Like It, complete with its own cross-dressing heroine.

The SFO production has been staged by Christopher Alden, setting the action in Paris shortly after the end of the First World War. This was a time when surrealism was on the rise, and two of the characters have been translated into leading figures of that time. Emilio (tenor Alek Shrader), Prince of Cumae, who thinks (mistakenly) that he can win the heart of Partenope (soprano Danielle de Niese) by conquering Naples with his army, has been translated into Man Ray, complete with camera and the assembly of a massive collage from photographic prints throughout the third (and final) act. Partenope herself may have been inspired by Ray's photograph of Nacy Cunard, which graced the cover of the program book. At the same time the massive beard sported by Ormonte (bass-baritone Philippe Sly) makes him a ringer for Francis Picabia, at least as the painter appearing in René Clair’s 1924 short film “Entr’acte,” where he does a series of ballet turns as a “Les Sylphides” ballerina. (Ormonte has his own cross-dressing scene in the third act of the opera.)

There are any number of other cultural cross-references in this production. The set for the first act could have served equally well in a performance of Noël Coward’s Design for Living. In that set Armindo (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, making his SFO debut) has considerable trouble negotiating a curved staircase involving routines that would have served Buster Keaton very well. In the second act, on the other hand, Emilio is locked in a bathroom; and his efforts to escape recall some of the physical struggles of Harold Lloyd in a precarious position. By the time we get to the third act, it seems as if Alden was determined to pile on any cross-references he had missed in the first two acts. Armindo now takes a turn as Fred Astaire, while Emilio emerges as one of the secondary characters from E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

Alden puts all of this zaniness to good use. Partenope is very much a traditional Handelian opera. Just about every number is a da capo aria, using the ABA form to reveal the character of the individual doing the singing. Even the most devoted fans occasionally find their attention lagging as these arias parade by on the stage. However, Alden’s staging provides its own sense of time-consciousness, using the action to augment the character development but drawing upon Handel’s repetitions only where he sees fit. He even takes his own turn at da capo form, concluding the final act with the same image of all the characters seated at a card table that he used to begin the opera. The result is three and one-half hours of opera that goes by at a remarkably bracing clip.

That expert pacing was also due, in no small part, to the conducting technique of Julian Wachner, making his SFO debut. Like our own Nicholas McGegan leading the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Wachner takes a spirited approach to conducting Handel, working without a baton and always using his hands expressively to give each phrase its own characteristic shape. He also played harpsichord for the recitative passages, while all remaining harpsichord continuo work was taken by Peter Grunberg, performing with Michael Leopold on theorbo and David Kadarauch on cello. The orchestra was, for the most part, a reduced string ensemble with flutes, horns, and trumpet engaged on selected occasions for “special effects.”

The vocal resources consisted entirely of the six soloists. If a chorus was intended for the opening and closing numbers, it was not missed when the soloists sang as a blended ensemble. Countertenor David Daniels was at the top of his game with his usual solid command of Handel invoked to portray every confused twist in Arsace’s character. Rosmira, such by mezzo Daniela Mack, was really the character that kept the narrative moving forward; and Mack performed with all the sure-footed confidence required of her character. On the other hand de Niese always knew how to convey her position of power in the title role; and, if her pitch seemed to falter of a few occasions, her confidence was always right on the money.

Taken as a whole this turned out to be a perfectly delightful encounter between eighteenth-century musical styles and early twentieth-century visual sets, costumes, and staged action. The entire evening was thoroughly memorable. Indeed, it was so rich that the full extent of the action probably cannot be grasped by memory after only a single exposure. Can we expect a video recording of this production?

Sat, October 18, 2014

Review: ‘Partenope’ at San Francisco Opera
TheatreStorm

“Partenope” offers a dreamlike, meandering experience, an evening spent listening to beautiful arias on the nature of love and desire.

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Review: ‘Partenope’ at San Francisco Opera (***)

October 18, 2014

by Hugh Behm-Steinberg and Mary Behm-Steinberg

More than many works, “Partenope” is a bit difficult to review because, by its very nature, it is emotionally inaccessible. You can’t easily care about any of the characters because Baroque opera lacks the narrative structure typical of late 18th century to 20th century operas with which contemporary audiences are more familiar. Rather, Baroque operas, of which “Partenope” is both example and critique, are mostly series of arias designed to show off the vocal skills of the performers while only loosely relating a story.

In Handel’s time, operas weren’t meant to be viewed silently in the dark: they were social events, more akin to seeing a cabaret show or a live band at a dance club (not to mention what might go on in a private, curtained box on the upper levels of the theatre). In such a context, a four hour long opera, where the performers mostly just stand and sing, would be perfectly acceptable. Because such an approach would never work in a contemporary performance, modern stagings of Baroque operas offer a blank slate: the music is more or less the same, but everything else is up for grabs.

“Partenope” has no chorus, no ballet, and precious little recitative. One person sings, then another person sings.

This particular production of “Partenope” employs lavish stage sets and fills much of the open space around and between the arias with physical comedy. While the story, such as it is, could be set in any time or place, the choice of a Dadaist/Surrealist set of references and a 1930’s monochromatic modernist salon reasserts the emotional inaccessibility of the work, as if the staging was meant to render “Partenope” as dream, with archetypes, rather than real people, as characters.

The story line is both simple and needlessly complex. Partenope, Queen of Naples, is being courted by three male caricatures (manly Arsace, sensitive Armindo, and brutish Emilio) when, unexpectedly, a fourth, Eurimene, turns up. Eurimene, however, is Rosmira in disguise. Having been jilted by Arsace, she is seeking revenge by upending his relationship with Partenope. Arsace still loves Rosmira as well as Partenope, and is torn. Eurimene/Rosmira encourages Armindo to openly declare his feelings for Partenope so that she can have Arsace for herself. And Emilio, resembling a cross between Man Ray and Buster Keaton, declares war. That’s act one.

Each act’s set is a different kind of space whose alteration mimics the dreamlike progression of the characters through the plot. The enormous pristine white wall in act one is grafittied with the suggestion of Partenope’s body. The plot of act three could be summed up by the completion of a giant photo collage of Rosmira’s body, whose true gender, revealed at the end, sorts out the various entanglements as arrestingly as the popping of a very lovely soap bubble.

By the end of the opera, one has a sense of each of the characters through the variety of arias they sing expressing various aspects of their feelings. We care about them because they mirror our own memories and feelings of love and jealousy.

The production features some standout musical performances, particularly Danelle de Niese as Partenope, Daniela Mack as Rosmira, and Alek Shrader as Emilio. All of them perform their vocal acrobatics with skill and elegance. Countertenors David Danels (Arsace) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo) both sing roles originally meant for castrati, and Daniels seems to have problems projecting at several points in the show. Costanzo performs physical comedy with extraordinary grace, singing while falling down stairs, hanging from a stairwell, and dancing with a rebellious hat, a reference to Hans Richter’s 1927 Dadaist film “Ghosts Before Breakfast“. Shrader as Emilio is also physically brilliant with his gymnastics in a public restroom and his hand shadows over Man Ray projections on the rear wall. Some of the stage business leans too heavily on postmodernist clichés, such as having characters at various points walk very slowly across the stage for no apparent reason other than to give them something to do. And the boob jokes in act three are juvenile at best.

The music and visuals alternately resound and dissipate as the characters declare their feelings, become frustrated, rewarded and released.

If one is looking for a concise, realistic plot, this opera will seem disappointing. Instead, “Partenope” offers a dreamlike, meandering experience, an evening spent listening to beautiful arias on the nature of love and desire.

Fri, October 17, 2014

Why ‘Partenope?’ A Questionable Choice for San Francisco Opera
The Berkeley Daily Planet

Wachner swayed back and forth, flapped his arms, waved his hands, jabbed and pointed, jumped up and down, and lunged hither and yon. He continued in these exertions throughout the opera.

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Why PARTENOPE? A Questionable Choice for San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean

I have often said that when attending a Handel opera, even for the first time, as was the case when I heard Partenope on Wednesday, October 15, one comes out of the theater feeling one has heard the opera three times. This is because Handel followed the da capo pattern of his era, structuring each and every aria in an ABA pattern in which the aria is first sung all the way through, then developed with variation, and finally repeated “from the beginning” with or without further vocal embellishment. When listening to Handel, this ABA pattern can be extremely tedious. 

Handel’s Partenope, first produced in 1730 in London, at more or less a mid-point in Handel’s career as an opera composer, is a case in point. Especially, since even the impresario, Owen Swiney, who first introduced Partenope to the operatic stage in London in 1730, admitted that this opera “put me in a sweat… for it is the very worst book … that I ever read in my whole life.” Indeed, the anonymous libretto for Partenope, based on texts meant to serve previous operas, is more than a bit contrived and frivolous.  

Partenope has never before been seen here. In fact, this opera is rarely seen anywhere. Perhaps there’s a reason. However, Director Christopher Alden, who oversaw this staging, had created in 2008 an award-winning production of Partenope for English National Opera. Further, Alden had ties with San Francisco Opera, having previously directed productions, among others here, of Hans Werner Henze’s Das Verratene Meer (1991) and Stuart Wallace’s musically sophomoric (but locally celebrated) Harvey Milk (1996). So San Francisco Opera’s General Manager David Gockley chose, for better or worse—and ’m of two minds on this question—to bring to San Francisco Alden’s staging of Handel’s Partenope in this Fall’s season at the War Memorial Opera House.  

In his staging, Alden tried his best to make Partenope both interesting and relevant to our contemporary audiences. Handel set the plot in the Kingdom of Naples, where Partenope reigns as Queen. Director Alden set the opera in the Paris of the 1920s, in an era of artistic ferment enlivened by revolutionary movements in art and politics such as Dadaism and Surrealism. Alden makes Partenope a socialite hostess of a literary and artistic Parisian salon, where creative types gather around her and seek amorous favor from their “Queen Bee.” While Alden succeeded in some respects, he clearly overreached in others, alternately drawing laughs and trying our patience in an already long evening of listening to Handel’s musical repeats. (To their credit, San Francisco Opera made many musical cuts, shortening Partenope from a running time of over four hours to three hours and twenty minutes. However, even this shorter version seemed tedious and far too long, made only somewhat bearable by a number of sight gags thrown in by Director Alden to alleviate the tedium.) 

On paper, the cast seemed well-chosen. Internationally acclaimed soprano Danielle de Niese as Partenope and countertenor David Daniels as Arsace are both noted Handel interpreters. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack seemed—and was—an excellent choice for the role of Rosmira, who dresses as a man (Eurimene) to win back—and/or take vengeance—on Arsace, who has betrayed her before the opera begins. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was selected for the role of Armindo, who moons in vain (until the ending) after Partenope. However, none of these noted singers managed to project anything whatsoever of the Italian text, and several of them, most notably Anthony Roth Costanzo, couldn’t consistently project their voices adequately in the War Memorial auditorium. In this respect, only tenor Alek Shrader, who sang the role of Emilio, exhibited both the vocal power and diction to make the Italian text clearly heard whenever he sang. 

Countertenor David Daniels as Arsace had ample opportunity in this opera to sing melancholy laments and longing expressions of forlorn love. Danielle de Niese as Partenope had a variety of different moods to express in her many arias, all of them beautifully sung, with a few lapses in the high notes, but totally absent of clear diction in Italian. Daniela Mack sang beautifully, expressing a variety of moods; but she too failed to make the Italian text clearly heard. Counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo had a pleasant voice but was simply not strong enough to make much of a vocal impression.  

As the opera gets under way, all the male characters (and one female disguised as a male) seek to court Partenope. For her part, Partenope initially declares Arsace her favorite. Arsace, however, finds a young man named Eurimene dis-turbingly similar in looks to a woman, Rosmira, he has very recently jilted. This ‘Eurimene’, it soon turns out, is Rosmira disguised as a man; and when Arsace dis-covers this fact he is both remorseful and sworn to secrecy by Rosmira/Eurimene. Armindo and Emilio also declare themselves infatuated with Partenope, who seems to have them all wrapped around her little finger. 

In Act I, Director Alden stages much extraneous hi-jinks, such as having Armindo crawl rather than walk up a flight of stairs, then hang by his fingertips from the stairs while continuing to sing, then falling down a whole flight of stairs. Mean-while, Partenope and the other guests playing cards at her salon inexplicably don gas masks—a totally random bit of stagecraft unless one checks out the photograph in the opera program by Lee Miller, Man Ray’s lover, of a man wearing a gas mask from World War I. At this point, Alden’s staging seems all too arch and strained. 

In Act II, the staging becomes even more arch and strained. The action, if one can call it that, is simply a battle by the men for Partenope’s affections. The set includes a bathroom where, first, Partenope, retires, closing the door behind her. Soon we hear a toilet flush. Meanwhile, Emilio, who doubles as the photographer Man Ray, projects on a wall an abstract bit of film (actual footage by Man Ray). While singing, he then uses the projector’s light to throw hand shadows on the same wall. When Partenope exits the bathroom, Armindo replaces her and is locked inside by Emilio, who wants Partenope for himself. Armindo opens the transom and sticks his head out, singing his indignation. Finally, Armindo kicks the door open, but now Arsace is locked in the bathroom; and when the door is finally opened by Partenope, Arsace, seated fully clothed on the toilet, has covered himself with toilet paper. In short, we have descended to toilet jokes. Of course, what can a stage director do to counter the static quality of Handel’s da capo repeats? Christopher Alden has undoubtedly gone overboard; but something— if not toilet jokes—was needed to alleviate the musical tedium. How much coloratura roulades can one take? I am sympathetic to Alden’s problems, if not to his solutions. 

Act III brings about a resolution, of sorts, to the amorous goings on. There is a lovely trio involving Partenope, Rosmira, and Arsace, in which each protagonist expresses different and conflicting emotions. Eventually, realizing how steadfast Rosmira has been in seeking to win back Arace, Partenope renounces her infatuation with Arsace and quickly turns to Armindo, taking on a new lover as easily as she sheds the previous one. These characters are hardly believable! And we care not a whit about any of their amorous ambitions, with the exception of Rosmira and her deeply felt but conflicted feelings for Arsace who betrayed her. 

Finally, a word must be said about the conducting. Due to an illness, the scheduled conductor, Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn, had to be replaced at fairly short notice. Into the breach stepped Julian Wachner, music director of Trinity Wall Street in New York. Wachner has a conducting style that is all too flamboyant for my taste. In the overture to Partenope, Wachner swayed back and forth, flapped his arms, waved his hands, jabbed and pointed, jumped up and down, and lunged hither and yon. He continued in these exertions throughout the opera. While I cannot fault Wachner’s choice of tempos, except in an early aria by David Daniels, which I thought the conductor took too slow, I found myself irritated and distracted by Wachner’s antics. This was Wachner’s San Francisco Opera debut. I hope he will not be invited back.

Thu, October 16, 2014

Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven ‘Partenope’
Opera Warhorses

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.

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Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope”
October 16th, 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 were 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.

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.

De Niese is internationally recognized as a superb Handelian, and Handel’s operas were a major element in establishing her reputation.  Her arias were filled with energy, a healthy vibrato gleaming through her fast-paced lyric coloratura passages.

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.]

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.

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.

In my recent interview with Alec 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.

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, which stage director Alden used effectively in his surreal conceptualization of Emilio as a surrealist photographer.

Daniela Mack 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.

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.

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.

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.  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.

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 conseuence of Rosmira’s actions, as he ultimately wins Partenope.

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 trrops 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.

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.

Thu, October 16, 2014

‘Partenope’: Handel á la Cirque du Soleil at S.F. Opera
The San Francisco Examiner

...the orchestra, directed masterfully by Julian Wachner, plays splendidly.

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‘Partenope’: Handel á la Cirque du Soleil at S.F. Opera

by Janos Gereben | October 16, 2014

Spectacular singing and acrobatics meet to offer unusual entertainment in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House.

It took Handel's 1730 "Partenope" two and a half centuries to be staged in San Francisco, but director Christopher Alden's production, acclaimed at its London premiere, makes up for the delay by dazzling, amusing and entertaining audiences - or dismaying some viewers - at its opening Wednesday evening.

The original story, about Queen Partenope of Naples and her three royal suitors (one a woman appearing as a man) is undecipherable. Alden transfers the action to 1920s Paris, and throws in everything but the kitchen sink (although there is a toilet), prompting patrons to simply give up trying to figure out what it's about. Arias, scenes and actions don't connect. Production notes refer to the spirit of Dadaism and Surrealism, which may explain why countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performed a brilliant aria while swinging from a grand staircase. His alarming pratfall over the length of stairs was another matter.

Handel's 42 operas - which run for hours, have repetitious arias and disjointed stories - are different from his famously accessible and linear "Messiah."

This "Partenope" in the War Memorial, which cuts about an hour from the original, is "only" 3 1/2 hours, and jazzed up to make the Baroque sounds accessible to today's audiences. But, unlike director Nicholas Hytner, who effectively and judiciously freshened up Handel in his 2011 San Francisco Opera production of "Xerxes," Alden overdoes it with "Partenope," rarely allowing the music to breathe - even though the orchestra, directed masterfully by Julian Wachner, plays splendidly.

Everything and everybody is in constant motion. Not only does Danielle De Niese in the title role sing magnificently and vamp around seductively, she's at the mercy of shticks that are at odds with characteristics of a queen or great soprano. (To her credit, De Niese seems to enjoy the proceedings.) Illustrious countertenor David Daniels also gives an exemplary performance, even while dealing with Alden's requirements. Other principals - former Adler Fellows Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader and Philippe Sly - also give wonderful vocal performances.

On opening night, the audience enjoyed the fun and games, further buoyed by announcements regarding the S.F. Giants' lead, and ultimate victory, over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Thu, October 16, 2014

Partenope
Kinderkuchen for the FBI

I simply loved it.  It was beautiful to see and hear.  The set was simply gorgeous, and it was populated by some of the most gorgeous singers around.

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Partenope

Think of her as one of a pair of twin girls:  PeNELope and ParTENope.  Penelope, Partenope, Penelope,  Partenope.  You'll be close enough to how to pronounce it.

We are referring, of course, to the Handel opera Partenope now playing at the San Francisco Opera.  Get up from your couch and get down to see this.

I was ready for this because I read this tweet from David Daniels:

"Opening Night of PARTENOPE  #Cards #Bourbon #cigarettes #gasMasks & #HANDEL TOYZ!"

It has all this and tap dancing, toilet paper, bare chested man not baritone and a gorgeous homage to art deco.  Favorite joke:  Sound of a toilet flushing followed by Arsace saying "I hear her."  It all kind of went like that.

The production, originally in English at the ENO, is a constant flow of references to the artists of Paris in the twenties.  There is a film by Man Ray, gas masks a la photographer Lee Miller, Ezra Pound, etc.

The plot can be briefly summarized.  Partenope has three male suitors:  Arsace, Armindo and Emilio.  At the start of the opera she prefers Arsace and has completely rejected Emilio.  She is ambiguous toward Armindo.  Rosmira arrives disguised as a man who wishes to kill Arsace.  At the end Arsace has returned to Rosmira and Partenope has turned to Armindo.  Ormonte is a servant?  As Baroque plots go, it is quite sweet and uncomplicated.

This is the first time in all my years at the San Francisco Opera when I have seen a Dramaturg listed in the program.  A dramaturg is someone who conducts historical research and places the action within the historical period.  You see this in European opera companies quite a lot.  So why would you need a dramaturg for Partenope?

They have moved the action from 1730 to 1930 Paris.  Or perhaps, since Partenope is an historical figure, from 300 b.c. to 1930 Paris and the great art movements between the wars.  So Partenope may or may not be the photographer Lee Miller, Arsace may or may not be the writer Ezra Pound and Emilio is definitely the photographer Man Ray.  Or Maybe Arsace is Tristan Tzara, also a writer.  I'm sure there were more historical references I didn't pick up on.  Perhaps the dramaturg is for making any sense at all of the historical environment of 1920's Paris.

I simply loved it.  It was beautiful to see and hear.  The set was simply gorgeous, and it was populated by some of the most gorgeous singers around.  The countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo entertained us with beautiful singing, astounding acrobatics on the staircase, a scene where he bares his chest for Partenope and tap dancing.  AND he gets the girl.

Alex Shrader photographs people, develops the pictures and hangs them on the wall, all while entertaining us with some spectacular singing.  One aria is sung while....  I'm giving too much away.

Danielle de Niese gets four wonderful costumes, including a tuxedo, to display gracefully while she sings her arias.

The sweetest arias were for Arsace, sung beautifully by David Daniels.  I can't exactly explain the effect this had on me which consisted of smiles and contentment.

In spite of all the smoking I didn't smell any tobacco smoke in case you are worrying about that.

Oh, and I forgot shadow puppets.

Thu, October 16, 2014

SF Opera’s Partenope
The Opera Tattler

The reduced orchestra of only 39 musicians sounded fresh and vital under Maestro Julian Wachner…The continuo was played beautifully by the conductor…

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SF Opera's Partenope

Christopher Alden's delightfully humorous production of Partenope opened at San Francisco Opera last night. The stylish set (Act I pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver), designed by Andrew Lieberman, was enhanced by Adam Silverman's lighting. Costume designer Jon Morrell did a wonderful job evoking 1920s Paris and Man Ray. The staging matches the absurdity of the plot rather well, embracing silliness with use of bananas, dancing, and hand shadow puppetry. It was refreshing to see something a little less sedate than the other offerings of the 2014-2015 season so far.

The reduced orchestra of only 39 musicians sounded fresh and vital under Maestro Julian Wachner. The horns had a rough start but in the end managed to sound sublime. The continuo was played beautifully by the conductor and Peter Grunberg on harpsichord, cellist David Kadarauch, and theorbist Michael Leopold.

The most of the singers employed much physicality in their performances. Philippe Sly danced foppishly and sang with warm effortlessness. His outrageous costume in Act III involved a puffy pink flowered gown, red evening gloves, and a Pickelhaube festooned with bananas. Anthony Roth Costanzo was an endearing Armindo who managed to sing his first aria ("Voglio dire al mio tesoro") while falling down or hanging on to stairs. He also tap danced during "Ma quai note di mesti lamenti" in Act III. The clarity of his voice came through despite all these antics.  Alek Shrader's tenor sounded robust, and as Emilio he put on a hand puppet show that was amusing and engaging.

David Daniels (Arsace) gave a nuanced performance. He seemed slightly behind the orchestra in "Furibondo spira il vento," but sang has a lovely and tender "Ch'io parta?" in Act III. Daniela Mack seemed to perfectly embody the role of Rosmira and sounded pretty too. She spends most of her time on stage pretending to be a man, and the contrast between Mack and the titular leading lady was marked. As Partenope, Danielle de Niese sparkled and was vivacious. Her voice seemed heftier and throatier than I remembered. Her dancing was particularly sharp. Everyone sounded fully present in the moment and the finale of the piece was especially rousing.

* Tattling * 
Our neighbors in Box I introduced themselves and shared a chocolate strawberry with us. There was a confrontation between a man at the back of Box H with a woman who showed up in the middle of Act II. He suggested that she did not have a ticket for Seat 4 and mentioned she had not been there for the first third of the performance.

Thu, October 16, 2014

Top Hatters
Parterre Box

Conductor Julian Wachner seemed to share Alden’s mercurial perception of the piece, matching his hairpin changes of tone with luxuriant fits of brooding and elation, and his four-player continuo created endless nuance in recitatives.

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Top hatters

by Greg Freed | 5:46 pm | Oct 16, 2014

When Mike Nichols was honored at the Kennedy Center, Elaine May said of his work: “Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful, and that have real impact, and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they’re as much fun as if they were trash.” Christopher Alden has pulled the same bit of trickery at the San Francisco Opera with a production of Handel’s Partenope that is so erudite and theatrically audacious and also such a rollicking ride, it’s hard to believe it isn’t crap.  

In its opening tableau, Alden’s conception threatens a certain Egoiste-commercial affectation, but it is immediately rescued by the director’s arsenal of responses to the inherently static nature of a three and a half hour parade of da capo arias. There is room in Alden’s vision for camp and slapstick and heartbreak and sex—the last mostly offstage, but for one instance of, well, jobus interruptus. (They hardly know us, they hardly know us.)  In the third act, there are flights of whimsy that teeter on the brink of precious, but by that time, it’s impossible to muster much objection.

Alden and his design team (sets by Andrew Lieberman and costumes by Jon Morrell, both masters of faintly disreputable elegance) have packed the stage with explicit visual references to Dada and surrealism and imbued it with an air of the cinematic. The setting, we are told, is Paris in the 1920s, but the characters, though mad as hatters, are modern and relatable, at least to those of us who are also mad as hatters.

All evening long, despite my delight in the production, I fretted over the idea of writing about Danielle DeNiese. The thing about reviewing for a blog you’ve read basically since Jenny Lind was on tour is, you figure out which singers bring out the Mean Girl in opera queens.

But, you know, fuck it. There are problems there—the middle register can be breathy in a way that detracts from lyrical pieces like “Qual farfaletta” and makes it hard to know how the fioratura is actually going in showpieces. Her ornamentation is intermittently tasteful. All singers are flawed, and these didn’t truly stand in the way of what I’d have to call a pretty complete performance. The dramatic craft was fully realized and the singing was, if unextraordinary, satisfying.

Alden imagines a physicality for his actors that is nearly as specific as that of Robert Wilson, if less ritualized. DeNiese inhabited this with a great deal of poise and spontaneity. She was not the only one to rise to the challenge: Anthony Roth Costanzo, apparently game for anything, sang one of his arias dangling off the edge of a spiral staircase and another, I shit you not, while tap dancing—with a limpid legato, no less.

Alek Shrader, in the finest performance of the night, dashed fearlessly through “Anch’io pugnar sapro” hanging halfway through a transom with seemingly limitless breath and staggering facility. His Emilio also pulled off unquestionably the funniest piece of stage business I’ve ever seen in an opera during “Barbaro fato”— the kind of thing that elicits actual laughter where most opera comedy strains for a titter.

It was a pity not to hear what he could have done with Emilio’s more lyric “La speme ti console”, which was cut, but a privilege to see what he and Alden made of this not quite fascinating character. If you remember Shrader from The Audition or the actual auditions that year, you will recall perhaps his floppy hair and also that he is not at all hard on the eyes, though he was done up here as the love child of Man Ray and Harold Lloyd.

Recent performances by David Daniels in the tedious pastiche Enchanted Island had led me to wonder in my artless Japanese way: what is it that’s supposed to happen to countertenors as they pass out of their jeune premier years? There is, sad to say, no countertenor Marschallin or Kostelnicka unless it’s Arnalta in Poppea, which ain’t much. Daniels’ solution, on the evidence of his Arsace, is to power through the things that are no longer easy on sheer will—”Furibondo” used to be a calling card and something he then seemed almost unfazed by and now is not—and sing the less flashy numbers with an exquisite, supple line that makes the other stuff seem tawdry.

Daniels was, after all, maybe the first countertenor who brought operatic phrasing to the Baroque and seemed not to be a part of that movement that played early music as if it were math homework. “Ch’io parta” was sung by someone who could, mutatis mutandis, sing great Verdi (putting aside that, long ago, in a less formal setting, he did.)

Daniela Mack, a former Adler fellow, charmed the audience greatly in “Un altra volta ancor”, working the warm, even sound and impeccable technique that got her to the finals in Cardiff.  Philippe Sly, though young, seemed like luxury casting in the short role of Ormonte, handsome of voice and ridiculously assured in his florid singing. Conductor Julian Wachner seemed to share Alden’s mercurial perception of the piece, matching his hairpin changes of tone with luxuriant fits of brooding and elation, and his four-player continuo created endless nuance in recitatives.

If I’m not stepping on Opera Tattler’s turf, I should note that, at each intermission, the supertitle board displayed the score of the big cribbage game or whatever it was that was happening across town, because god forbid there be some space in America where sports aren’t automatically the overriding subject of conversation.

As Shrader crept onstage before the third act, holding what appeared to be a newspaper, some wag a few rows behind me posited aloud, in the spirit of life-as-caption-contest that has lately overtaken us all, “Giants won!” Because sports. I guess it’s not Just Plain Folksy of me, but the only Giants I need to hear about at the opera house are the ones in Wagner.

Thu, October 16, 2014

A Siren to Fire Partenope at S.F Opera
San Francisco Classical Voice

The conductor was Julian Wachner, the highly regarded conductor of the musical groups at New York’s Trinity Church and others ensembles including the Washington [D.C.] Chorus. Conducting from one of the two harpsichords used, he drew a fine, early music-styled performance from the orchestra and rendered the score with a lively, rhythmically crisp, yet expressive continuity.

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A Siren to Fire Partenope at S.F Opera

By Robert P. Commanday

October 16, 2014


The San Francisco Opera took Handel’s comic opera Partenope a few strides beyond his own parody of opera seria conventions into satire, even camp, and then burlesque. Happily, since the name of the game remains “music” and especially vocal virtuosity, the art was respected in the gambol that is Christopher Alden’s staging. Unlike the disastrous 2002 staging here of Handel’s Alcina, the soloists’ arias were not sabotaged by monkeyshines upstage. While the stellar Danielle de Niese or her colleagues were singing the sensational, florid arias, the stage activity was in ultra-slow motion, and curiously undistracting.

From the outset, the audience was set up to accept the unexpected.

Partenope comes from the Greek parthenos (“maiden’s voice”) but this opera’s dominating woman, named after a siren who failed to entrap Odysseus, is no maiden. More of a femme fatale, she is passionately and, as shown explicitly here, actively attached to Arsace (the great countertenor David Daniels). She also reciprocates when her enemy Emilio embraces her before rejecting him. Finally, she winds up in the arms of the other countertenor, Arminio (Anthony Roth Costanzo) who has been haplessly mooning after her for two hours and 40 minutes (not including intermissions). That’s without the more than eight numbers that were cut — a long song.

The second take-off or parody by Handel and his librettist (unknown) is on the then already common device of a woman masquerading as a man. Rosmira, the Argentinian mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, appears disguised in order to either punish or recapture her Partenope-ensnared lover Arsacio, It’s all about love-hate and the battlefield of love. This is where the plot thins but the humor in the staging keeps getting cleverer.

The production, designed by Andrew Lieberman, with costumes by John Morrell, opens on a gleaming white opening set featuring spectacular sweeping stairs. Early on, Arminio (Costanzo) pratfalls down the stairs, singing as he clambers up to cling to them. The audience has already been puzzled by the character who turns out to be Emilio (Alek Shrader) peering through a white rectangular sheet of paper as a mask and wandering about with flash camera. (This turns out to be a recurrent motive, the camera presumably signifying the characters being revealed.)

Perhaps connected to that idea, gas masks passed around by Partenope briefly serve as facial covers. Along with Partenope’s romancing, playing her as a driven, aggressive predator, de Niese gets to sing one knock-out aria after another. Her soprano is among the most beautiful of the generation, crystal clear, shimmering, continuously vibrant and exciting. The technical display dazzles. Not to put her colleagues in the shade. They’re too good. Daniels, taking his turn at the roulade and fioriture-laden music, “I? Leave you?” being a capper. He was his as-ever top-notch counter-tenor. Later, with Arsace’s sleep aria, “Mà quai note,” he would work his expressive magic. Costanzo’s counter-tenor, while not as big and commanding as his colleague’s, was fluid, true and his singing musical. Mack’s arias were strong and also virtuosic, befitting the trouser-role character. She has the opera’s single stop-time contemplative piece, an exquisite accompanied recitative that she sang lovingly.

Like Arsace’s sleep aria that it follows, it was also set apart by its gentle accompaniment by two flutes, muted strings, pizzicato basses, and theorbo. The conductor was Julian Wachner, the highly regarded conductor of the musical groups at New York’s Trinity Church and others ensembles including the Washington, D.C. Chorus. Conducting from one of the two harpsichords used, he drew a fine, early music-styled performance from the orchestra and rendered the score with a lively, rhythmically crisp, yet expressive continuity.

Meanwhile, of course, a lot was going on the stage and while not musical, at least it was not anti-musical. The company’s commentary described the production concept as DaDa/Surreal, the setting in 1920s Paris, the aesthetic, “after Man Ray.” A door with a frosted glass panel in the center of Act 2’s wall opened to reveal a toilet, a character, fully clothed, ensconced on the commode. After defeating Emilio in his war on Partenope, Arsace locked him into the toilet. Later, climbing the inside of the door to the opened transom, and hanging half-through the transom, Alek Shrader as Emilio sang a stirring aria, his tenor as bright and shining as the music. Throughout, he and most of the other characters do a lot of faux-cigarette “smoking,” in stress situations. It was the twenties, after all.

Next, Act 3 reveals a third wall (great for acoustical backing) on which Shrader is pasting panels of paper that form, sort-of, the upper half body of a naked woman. Shrader, now an accessory character, “the photographer,” shows a brief movie of abstract patterns on the wall. Frustrated, he rips up the film, does a funny hand-characters shadow play using the projector’s light, sings a ripping tenor aria, to a deserved acclaim. As Oronte, a secondary character, Philippe Sly, sang in a good, firm bass-baritone. Later on, Costanzo as Armindo does an amusing tap dance routine, complete with top hat and, tossed from the wings, cane.

Rosmira, out to show up her faithless but still beloved Arsace as a coward, challenges him to a duel but he outwits her, insisting that it be fought bare-chested. She gives up and reveals her true identity and former relationship to Arsace. Now furious at Arsace, Partenope denounces him and takes up with Armindo. Happy ending, or maybe.

As successful as this production turned out to be, musically, creatively, given its length, there were early leavers. They lost. With this production and those that preceded it, the company is on track for one of its vocally finer seasons.

Thu, October 16, 2014

S.F. Opera review: ‘Partenope’ a fizzy, free-associative delight
San Francisco Chronicle

Alden’s vivaciously inventive production, which premiered at the English National Opera in 2008, retains that spirit of looseness without letting the proceedings devolve into chaos. And a mostly first-rate cast, nimbly led by debuting conductor Julian Wachner, brings Handel’s score vividly to life.

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S.F. Opera review: 'Partenope’ a fizzy, free-associative delight

Joshua Kosman | October 16, 2014

“I don’t quite understand what this is about,” one character sings to another midway through Act 2 of Handel’s “Partenope.” Patrons at the San Francisco Opera’s fizzy, delightful and bewildering new production, which opened Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House, are apt to feel similarly — and not to mind at all.

This is not the occasion for worrying too much about the literal meaning of the action onstage, or for following the vicissitudes of a plot that keeps looping back on itself as if to defer any resolution through sheer force of will. All that matters are the elemental forces of love, the glorious streams of vocal invention in which the composer has bathed his characters, and the witty, free-associative byplay that director Christopher Alden provides to help keep things aloft.

If that doesn’t sound like enough — if pitilessly precise logic is your thing — then this “Partenope,” which takes its inspiration from the French surrealists, may not be to your taste. But surrender to its buoyant charms, and you may soon find your senses ravished and your funny bone delicately tickled.

“Partenope” is a striking rarity among Handel’s operas. It’s a romantic comedy, and even more, it’s one that tweaks the conventions of serious opera with subversive wit.

The intersection between love and war, which is so often a weighty theme in 18th century opera, comes off here as a chic game. The cross-dressing warrior maiden — a staple of serious opera even as late as Rossini — is treated with some of the sexy freedom of “Twelfth Night” or “As You Like It.”

Alden’s vivaciously inventive production, which premiered at the English National Opera in 2008, retains that spirit of looseness without letting the proceedings devolve into chaos. And a mostly first-rate cast, nimbly led by debuting conductor Julian Wachner, brings Handel’s score vividly to life.

A Parisienne

The title character, originally the founding queen of Naples, is reimagined as a sleekly devil-may-care Parisienne of the 1920s, holding court in her spacious white-on-white apartment (Andrew Lieberman’s sets, expertly lit by Adams Silverman, are a marvel of unfussy elegance).

Orbiting around her is a constellation of hangers-on who seem to live only for love — although the patterns of desire and deception are so fluid and complex that not even a helpful diagram in the program book will quite sort them out. Suffice it to say that nearly everyone ends up with someone, which is all that romantic comedy really requires.

Alden’s invocation of Dada and Surrealism — one character is explicitly cast as a reincarnation of the artist Man Ray — could easily have turned into a license for anything-goes mayhem. But he uses his liberty with impressive discipline.

Yes, there are many moments in the production that come out of left field, including a tap-dancing countertenor, shadow puppetry, toilet jokes and a wonderful homage to the silent film genius Harold Lloyd. But because the work’s emotional logic remains so focused, the whimsical phantasmagoria of the staging feels inviting rather than forced.

Much of the emotional truth of the evening — the sudden bursts of rage and scorn, the drooping evocations of self-pity and despair — derives from the acuity of Handel’s writing, and the beauty and sensitivity with which this cast sings it.

Although Partenope gets top billing, the true heart of the opera is with two other characters: the princess Rosmira, who has arrived in male disguise to chase down her errant lover Arsace, and Arsace himself, who is too susceptible and weak-willed to choose between Rosmira and Partenope.

As Rosmira, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack delivered a superb follow-up to her star turn in last season’s “Barber of Seville,” delivering athletic, perfectly tuned coloratura and letting the audience feel viscerally the depth of the character’s ardor and pain. Countertenor David Daniels is never less than arresting onstage, but even by those standards his Arsace was a triumph: full-toned, expressively probing and marked by vivid vocal colors.

Unfortunately, the evening’s one weak link was the Partenope of soprano Danielle de Niese. She looked stunning (Jon Morrell’s costumes were eye-catching throughout), and she inhabited center stage with dazzling charisma, but apart from one long and exquisitely shaped aria midway through Act 2, her singing was beset by breathy tone and shaky high notes.

Strong singing

No such complaints could be made about the rest of the cast. The young American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo made an unforgettable company debut as Armindo, who spends the entire evening mooning after Partenope; Costanzo shaped his character with an abundance of vocal allure and physical resourcefulness.

Tenor Alek Shrader was a vocal dynamo as Emilio, the invading general whom Alden has reinvented as Man Ray, and bass-baritone Philippe Sly as Partenope’s captain of the guard — here wittily recast as the gay best friend — sang magnificently in his all-too-few arias.

The continuing integration of Handel’s work into the mainstream of our operatic life remains one of the great success stories of the past decades. A production like this one, blending musical seriousness with theatrical panache, can only help matters further.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic. E-mail: jkosman@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @JoshuaKosman

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