Near the end of Act I of this decidedly comic British production of “Partenope,” in its company premiere at San Francisco Opera, a breeze wafts through an open window, billowing the diaphanous curtain in seductive swirls. That undulating fabric is a metaphor for how director Christopher Alden has reimagined Handel’s opera, exposing the work, first staged in 1730, to the fresh air of modern times. This is no starchy, reverent homage to a relic of the Baroque era: Alden gives Handel’s satire of love and desire in the court of the queen of Naples a Surrealist makeover. Though his updated version doesn’t always make perfect sense, it certainly reanimates Handel’s sprightly music. For that alone, it is a welcome and belated addition to the company’s repertoire.
Transporting the plot from a vaguely Greco-Roman setting to Paris in the 1920s, Alden draws on Surrealism’s dream-based view of love and sex to reinterpret the libretto. Partenope is recast as a wealthy and powerful seductress who holds forth in her minimalist salon (pristine-white sets by Andrew Lieberman). She is enamored with Arsace, who has recently jilted his former lover, Rosmira. Seeking revenge, Rosmira shows up at Partenope’s salon disguised as a man, hoping to expose Arsace as a cad. In the meantime, Rosmira befriends Armindo, who is secretly in love with Partenope. To complicate matters, Ormonte, a platonic admirer of Partenope, announces that Emilio has arrived, demanding Partenope’s hand — and threatening a battle if she refuses.
And that’s just Act I. The detours of the story’s remaining two acts give Alden opportunity to introduce farcical touches in the zigzag of alliances and cascades of emotion that follow. (Just how will he manage the “battle” referenced in Act I, you wonder? Drunken artists hurling cocktail shakers and canapés? The answer is not far from that, involving bananas and a shotgun.) It all works, more or less, in the context of the dreamlike Surrealist setting, although purists will have to endure considerable excursions into lowbrow shtick, including several scenes involving a toilet. But if Shakespeare can withstand such modernizing, why not Handel?
As Partenope, soprano Danielle de Niese inhabits the title role body and soul. She flutters about, looking positively alluring in Jon Morrell’s costumes. Although she occasionally hams it up too much (including during her sex-simulation scenes) and struggles occasionally in the coloratura demands of her part, de Niese is well cast as the fulcrum on which this topsy-turvy opera is based. David Daniels, in the countertenor lead of Arsace, turns in a captivating performance as the love interest of both female leads, conveying world-weary guilt and guile in a nuanced interpretation that brought enthusiastic applause on opening night. Memorable, too, is mezzo Daniela Mack as Rosmira. She delivers her numerous solo arias with convincing “just you wait” vengeance, and ends up stealing most of the scenes in which she appears. And who could fault the adorable Anthony Roth Costanzo, as limber and goofy as Charlie Chaplin in his scenes as the hapless Armindo (originally written as a trousers role)? In addition to his supple countertenor, audiences will enjoy Costanzo’s slapstick shenanigans as he slip-slides down stairs and banisters and pulls off a music-hall tap dance in his final aria, complete with top hat and cane. Bass-baritone Philippe Sly, in the thankless role of Ormonte, nonetheless charms with his foppish antics and clarion clear delivery, plus he’s a hoot in the preposterous poufy dress he wears in Act III. Tenor Alek Shrader as Emilio, the rejected suitor, rounds out the first-rate cast as a sort of Man Ray double, shooting photos of the action and assembling a mural of his work in the last act that gives everyone onstage a moment to ponder what he’s up to.
Last but not least in this production’s list of talents is conductor Julian Wachner, whose delicate, restrained control of the orchestra perfectly supported the singers while faithfully rendering the musical line, justly deserving his opening-night ovation. (One can only hope the company’s music director, Nicola Luisotti, will hear the difference as well and begin pulling back on the overpowering volume from the pit himself, while hiring conductors with Wachner’s sensibility.)