Partenope

MUSIC BY George frideric handel

Libretto by Anonymous

COMPANY PREMIERE

Disguises and cross-dressing reveal deep truths about the human heart in Handel’s brilliantly entertaining comedy about Queen Partenope of Naples and her three royal suitors, which features one of his greatest scores. In his Olivier Award-winning production, director Christopher Alden moves the action to 1920s Paris, and the results are never less than riveting. Baroque music specialist, Julian Wachner, leads a superb cast featuring Danielle de Niese, “a voice seductive enough to woo gods as well as mortals” (The New York Times); David Daniels (Xerxes, 2011), who “has a dramatic flair especially well-suited to Handel’s bursts of vengeance or frenzy” (The New York Times); and Daniela Mack, “a purringly elegant BMW of a singer” (Daily Telegraph, London).

Partenope Insight Panel
For a behind-the-scenes peak into the rehearsal process of this celebrated baroque work, join San Francisco Opera Dramaturg Kip Cranna, Director Christopher Alden, stars Danielle de Niese, Alek Shrader, Daniela Mack and Anthony Roth Costanzo and other artists from the production for a panel discussion of Handel's Partenope on Monday, October 13 from 6–7pm at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center (44 Page Street, San Francisco). Click here for more information. 

Family Day at the Legion of Honor
San Francisco Opera is proud to partner with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for their Family Day, October 25 at 12pm. A celebration of Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House, Family Day will include performances by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, mezzo-soprano Megan Marino, and soprano Stacey Tappan. 

Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 3 hours, 18 minutes including two intermissions

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the Opera House in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

Production originally created by English National Opera and Opera Australia

Audio excerpts ©Chandos Chaconne 2005 (CHAN 0719(3)) / performed by Early Opera Company; Christian Curnyn, conductor
L’amor ed il destin”/Rosemary Joshua (Partenope); “Io seguo sol fiero”/Hilary Summers (Rosmira); “Vi circonda la Gloria d’Allori”/Rosemary Joshua, Lawrence Zazzo (Arsace), Stephen Wallace (Armindo), Hilary Summers, Andrew Foster-Williams (Ormonte)


Cast

Production Credits

Director Christopher Alden
Conductor Julian Wachner *
Set Designer Andrew Lieberman
Costume Designer Jon Morrell
Lighting Designer Adam Silverman
Associate Lighting Designer Gary Marder

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

ACT I

Partenope asks for Apollo’s blessing. Rosmira enters, disguised as a man, and introduces herself as Eurimene. Despite the disguise, Arsace recognizes her as his former betrothed; before they can talk, Ormonte announces that Emilio wants to meet Partenope. Armindo confides in Eurimene that he loves Partenope; she, however, is in love with Arsace. Rosmira scolds Arsace for abandoning her; he begs her forgiveness and she insists that he must not reveal her true identity. Armindo admits to Partenope that he loves her. When Eurimene interrupts Partenope and Arsace, “he” declares himself to be yet another of Partenope’s suitors. Partenope continues to assert her devotion to Arsace. Emilio offers Partenope marriage; when she refuses, he threatens her. She asks Arsace to lead her forces against Emilio, and this provokes jealousy among the other suitors. Armindo is perturbed by Eurimene’s feelings for Partenope, but Eurimene reassures him that his affections lie elsewhere.

ACT II

Partenope’s and Emilio’s forces engage, and Emilio is captured by Arsace. Eurimene claims all credit for Emilio’s capture and Arsace says nothing to the contrary. When Emilio contradicts Eurimene’s assertion, Eurimene challenges Arsace to a duel to prove his honor. Arsace attempts to pacify Eurimene, whose feelings are torn between love and rage. Armindo declares his love for Partenope; she, however, continues to want only Arsace. Alone together, Rosmira and Arsace struggle with conflicting emotions.

ACT III

Eurimene tells Partenope that “he” challenged Arsace not for himself but on behalf of a woman—Rosmira—whom Arsace had promised to marry and then abandoned. When Arsace admits the allegation is true, Partenope rejects him and gives hope to Armindo. Emilio offers Arsace his support in the forthcoming duel. Arsace asks for Rosmira’s forgiveness. When Partenope discovers them together, Rosmira manages to conceal her true identity. Both women scorn Arsace, who rails at the tyranny of love. The contestants are given their weapons for the duel. When Arsace suddenly demands that he and Eurimene must fight bare-chested, Eurimene is placed in a dilemma and chooses to reveal “his” true identity. The lovers change partners: Partenope takes Armindo, and Rosmira and Arsace are reunited.

Partenope Notes

Peter Littlefield

 


Love is dangerous. We all know that. An emotion that is supposed to be about bringing people together, it causes no end of conflict. In Partenope, Handel portrays love as a battle—both literally and figuratively. Prince Emilio attacks the city state of Queen Partenope after she rejects his marriage proposal. And in the various relationships among Partenope; her lover, Arsace; Arsace’s spurned-lover Rosmira; and Armindo, yet another Partenope suitor, the battlefields are many.

Through the character of Rosmira, Handel presents one of love’s mysteries: why does love coexist so easily with hate? (“Tearing at my heart are jealousy, love, and rage in equal portions,” she declares.) And, indeed, she takes her scheme to get Arsace back to an extreme. She enters disguised as a man and competes with him for his position in the court. She embarrasses him in every way she can. And ultimately, she has to question her own relentlessness. Not that Arsace doesn’t enjoy this kind of cat-and-mouse game. It’s what attracts him to her.

Of course, we all become a little crazy in the face of love, because love is the great unsettler. It cares very little about the arrangements people make—the social alliances, the accommodations to power and convention.

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

We set Partenope’s court in a salon. It’s an elite of socialites, men of affairs and artists who enjoy the daily round of parties, cocktails, and card games. Yet each character is troubled by questions about what these relationships add up to. Each must come to terms with one of love’s difficulties: Partenope struggles with the contradiction between her public role and personal desire, and she has a tendency to pick the wrong kind of man. Arsace evades commitment and is dishonest about his feelings. And Armindo is simply too timid to declare himself. It is left to Ormonte to suggest an approach that seems to elude the others: “In love as in a battle, you have to take a chance.”

The peace of this group is shaken by two assaults. The first, by Rosmira, threatens the relationship between Arsace and Partenope. The second, by Emilio, is more mysterious. We based him very loosely on the Surrealist photographer Man Ray. He uses his camera to uncover the hidden recesses of desire. He is anarchic and mercurial He is an embodiment of the libido with all its protean qualities, and the attack he launches on this narrow, little group is nothing less than an attack of love. He sets in motion a kind or game in which relationships are transformed.
So Partenope, Arsace, Rosmira, and Armindo fight it out. If love is a battle, as this highly ironic opera suggests, we all have to ask ourselves why. How does it take hold of us, subvert our expectations and break us down? Therein lies a mystery of man, and the answer lies buried in a tangle of feelings. It’s a conundrum expressed in all of our art and literature, and for the Surrealists, it seemed for a moment to hold the key to a revolution of the mind. Love assaults us, they would tell us, with the deeper truth about our natures. And so it would seem for our combatants, whose battle scars are mainly to their illusions.

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Handel’s Witty, Urbane, Subversive Art: Staging Partenope

Thomas May

Even adjusted for inflation, his operas are now doing far better box office (255 years after his death) than he could have ever wished at the height of his career.


No doubt George Frideric Handel—as the German-born Georg Friedrich Händel rebranded himself in his adoptive hometown of London—would have relished the irony. Only a sensibility finely attuned to the ironic could have created the delicious blend of erotic longing and satire that defines his treatment of Partenope.
 
We are closing in on the centenary of the start of the ongoing revival of Handel opera. It all began with a production of Rodelinda in Göttingen, Germany in 1920. From the very end of Handel’s life until that point, the composer’s output of approximately 40 operas had lain dormant, completely forgotten—aside from the occasional tune that,  when abstracted from its original context, fostered a deceptive impression of statuesque, Handelian “nobility” (e.g., the “Largo” from Xerxes).
 
An admirer of Handel’s genius as astute as George Bernard Shaw failed to perceive the hidden gold. Shaw did anticipate the thrust of the early music movement in his denunciations of the gargantuan Victorian excess with which Handel’s oratorios had been encrusted. Still, he wrote off the operas as hopelessly out of fashion, devoid of dramatic interest. They were nothing but “stage concerts for showing off the technical skills of the singers,” Shaw declared.
 
It would be silly to fault the playwright for his blindness, since the consensus verdict on Baroque opera in particular more or less affirmed the notorious (and xenophobic) putdown of opera in general by Handel’s contemporary Dr. Samuel Johnson: “an exotic and irrational entertainment.” Shaw was writing as a devoted Wagnerite, in an era when the Wagnerian concept of opera as a seamless continuity—an autonomous, organic form intended to facilitate the audience’s immersive experience—was rapidly becoming the desired paradigm.
 
Frankly, the theatrical side of the equation must have seemed all but a lost cause for the staunchest Handelian in those early years of the revival. The violence done to the musical side by ruthless cuts and rearrangements was bad enough; imagining what it must have been like as a dramatic experience, the musicologist David Vickers likens the 1920 staging of Rodelinda at the Göttingen Handel Festival to “the entire cast of the silent-movie Buck Rogers meeting at Bayreuth on a bad day.”
 
And yet Göttingen was the tipping point that reawakened interest in what Handel had been up to in his operas: not just musically, but as works of music theater. After all, this art form had been the chief focus of Handel’s creative activity until the marketplace drove him to re-channel his energy into oratorio. Rather than trivialize his operas as “stage concerts,” astute Handel lovers began to realize the reverse: that his oratorios are arguably operas in disguise. (Claus Guth’s intriguing staged version of Messiah for the 2009 anniversary yeareasy to find on YouTube — makes the case for the one piece by Handel that has, if anything, suffered the opposite of neglect.)
 
Appreciation of the inherent theatricality of Handel’s musical thinking has played a key part in bringing these long-ignored works back to life for audiences today. “Handel was one of the greatest music theater writers of all time,” says Partenope director Christopher Alden, “right up there with Verdi, Wagner, Janáček, Britten, and Monteverdi.”
 
True, he created these works during an era whose obsession with star singers resembles the attitude of sports fans today. Yet Handel’s genius was to invest the conventions of his time — long since obsolete — with a lively theatricality just waiting to be tapped.  “Handel wrote about issues that continue to speak to peoples’ lives,” asserts Alden. “He makes so much theater from the psychology and relationships in his operas. It’s all there to be mined.”
 
Partenope, which enters San Francisco Opera’s repertoire for the first time in company history with this production, is an especially compelling example of Alden’s premise. In contrast to the absurdly labyrinthine literary or historical plots and nested subplots typically found in opera seria  — the “serious opera” genre Handel imported from Italy to London for the majority of his stage works in the 1720s and 1730s — Partenope unfolds around a simple plot line of frustrated affection. The result is an intricate character study and sophisticated situation comedy: most of what happens involves an emotional progress report mapped out by each character vis-à-vis his or her object of affection.
 
The libretto Handel used for Partenope derived from a pre-existing source that had already been set many times by other composers. (The same holds for such other Handel masterpieces as Giulio Cesare.) Regarded by several Handel experts as one of the best-crafted librettos the composer ever worked with, Partenope manifests the sensibility of the earlier era in which it was written.
 
This production mimics that counterpoint of different eras overlaid atop one another not only by means of its 1920s Parisian salon setting, but through the saucily tinged supertitles that evoke the crisp wit of Noël Coward. (They were created in tandem with Amanda Holden’s English translation commissioned for the original English National Opera staging.) The sensibility of the modern setting is intended to trigger associations we can all recognize; these in turn help us tap into the emotional tug of war that plays out in Handel's music.
 
The poet Silvio Stampiglia (1664–1725) initially penned Partenope in 1699 for a theater in Naples. Stampiglia was a cofounder of the reformist operatic movement the Academy of the Arcadians, which was established in 1690 in Rome to counter the kudzu-like proliferation of overwrought, over-ornamented imagery in earlier Baroque librettos. (Goethe includes an interesting passage about the Arcadian movement in his Italian Journey.)
 
Partenope, however, actually swerves away from the Arcadians’ classicizing aesthetic by virtue of its mélange of funny and serious aspects. The text and story epitomize a looser, less-uptight, more free-wheeling theatrical tonality characteristic of seventeenth-century opera. Alden additionally observes that this is closer to the “all-the-world’s-a-stage” sensibility of Shakespeare. Fans of the Bard’s mature, bittersweet comedies will immediately home in on the similar emotional realm evoked by the misaligned affections and gender confusion of Twelfth Night or As You Like It.
 
Indeed, Partenope shares something with the later Xerxes, the last Handel opera to be ventured at San Francisco Opera (in 2011)—also, as it happens, in a highly lauded production that originated at English National Opera, where Alden’s Olivier Award-winning Partenope was first staged in 2008. Both operas are technically classified in the opera seria genre but are really satires permeated with comic elements: intentional comedy, that is, not the unintended humor that sometimes triggers guffaws from contemporary audiences.
 
The object of Partenope’s satire, on one level, is the artifice of opera and even of art itself. The “unmasking” of Rosmira, the lover betrayed by Arsace who passes as a man for most of the opera, as the denouement cleverly foregrounds the slipperiness of gender and identity that operatic conventions of the Baroque so easily accommodated. Standard heroic themes of valor and battle are turned on their head in the anti-heroic second act, nowhere more so than when Arsace and fight over who should get credit for the victory.
 
Alden picks up on the pointed artifice of the battle as a key to the entire opera by staging it as a series of attempted seductions at a party. The battle is “a metaphor for desire and eroticism as a force that comes into our lives and attacks us like an enemy,” says Alden. “It changes everything about our rational lives and injects an element of the irrational.”
 
The late Winton Dean, one of the great Handel authorities, called this subset of the composer’s operas “antiheroic,” a term that works especially well for Partenope, thanks to its scenes of battle and the anti-climactically preempted duel. Dean points out that Handel had no need for such genre labels since “he approached each libretto in the spirit it seemed to demand and, being a multifarious artist, refused to be confined by any stereotyped tone or method.”
 
But Partenope goes further in its subversive parody to take aim at the social status quo, Alden argues. This isn’t an anachronistic, avant la lettre feminist reading: it clearly draws from the opera’s structure. The plot can be outlined as concentric circles focused on a female in power. All the male characters “buzz around Partenope as the queen bee,” as Alden puts it, measuring themselves according to their relative favor in her eyes. These suitors are positioned with an almost Tom Stoppard-like geometry that highlights comic contrasts: the aggressive Emilio and the timid, confidence-lacking Armindo. In the middle of that spectrum stands Arsace, a player whose game is cramped by the unexpected arrival of Rosmira/Eurimene. The latter, actually a more complex character than the queen, replicates and amplifies Partenope’s control over the men through the focus on her relationship to the tormented Arsace. She is also a counterweight “outsider” figure to the intruding, belligerent Emilio. Some treatments (such one by the composer Leonardo Vinci from 1725) even named the opera after Rosmira, asserting her claim to be the true heroine of the story.
 
Partenope, meanwhile, vacillates in her emotions; her vulnerability is both teasingly and touchingly expressed in the second-act “Qual farfalletta.” Yet she remains in control—delineated in the eight arias assigned to her in the uncut score. (She also sings in a trio and a quartet.) Dean observes that the vast majority of the music Handel gives her is “in major keys commonly associated with extrovert moods.”
 
“There’s a very camp aspect to Handel’s operas, especially this piece,” Alden says. “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. 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.”
 
In fact, Handel had long wanted to set Partenope (one treatment of which he likely saw in Venice as far back as 1707–08). He first proposed the topic in 1726 to the Royal Academy of Music, the joint-stock company to produce opera that had been formed by royal charter in London in 1719. But the board rejected it, most likely because of its parody of the heroic style of opera seria they wanted to present in undiluted form.
 
The reaction of the impresario Owen Swiney further indicates that Partenope, with its gender-bending, invited-to-bear-her-breasts “coquette,” was even considered subversively decadent. In a letter to the Duke of Richmond, Swiney fretted that the notion of Partenope on the London stage “put me in a Sweat … for it is the very worst book … that I ever read in my whole life: Signor Stampiglia (the author) endeavours to be humourous and witty in it: If he succeeded in his attempt, on any stage in Italy [which he certainly did], ’twas meerly, from a depravity of Taste in the audience … ’twill bring more scandal & less profit, than any opera, that has been, yet, acted to the Hay-Market Theatre.” The title role, he added, was only fit for “some He-She-thing or other.”
 
The Academy went through a setback at the end of the decade when its ensemble of expensive, superstar singers imported from Italy decided to leave London. Reorganized as the “Second” Academy of Music in 1729, the company now gave Handel far more control over artistic decisions, and he chose Partenope for the opening season. The opera premiered in February 1730. Pace Mr. Swiney, the production failed to cause a public scandal, and within a few seasons it proved to be decently successful.
 
 
Winton Dean’s remark about the case-by-case treatment Handel devoted to his librettos, avoiding “stereotyped tone or method,” supplies a useful corrective to the notion that his operas betray a cookie-cutter approach on account of the recurrent da capo arias (ABA form arias) that are the musical “meat.” A similar caution should be applied by those biased against the director-centered approach to opera staging frequently labeled Regie—by those who automatically assume productions that radically reimagine an opera’s setting, visual elements, and action are intended to “supplant” or even mock the composer’s original intentions. Alden’s decision to set Partenope in the context of 1920s Paris is merely a starting point, not a rigid “concept” to which the score and libretto must be mercilessly tailored.
 
“The idea is not to airlift the piece into a specific modern context,” explains Alden. “It’s a very open-ended visual context that allows the audience to focus on the relationships and on the text and the music. I want to let all of that do the work together and not impose some meaning. For me, directing opera is a lot closer to choreography than to directing spoken theater. What I do is shaped very much by the music—that’s the bottom line. It’s not so much about interpreting a piece as about shaping it. When I direct, visual shapes come to me come straight from the music.”
 
It’s no coincidence that the innovative energy of the historically informed performance movement has proved to be so compatible with the outlook of Christopher Alden (and his brother, director David Alden), Nicholas Hytner, David McVicar, and other controversial directors who reject the old-fashioned stand-and-sing approach to staging Handel. Both are fueled by an intense desire to bring out the vitality of Handel’s creations—whether in the dance-inflected sensuality of his rhythms or by underscoring the emotional resonance of his theater.
 
“It has to do with the excitement of rediscovery of these works from the past, which for a long time seemed like dead artifacts,” says Alden says. “What’s called ‘early’ or ‘authentic’ music is just a style that emerged as another way to get in touch with these pieces.”
 
“What attracts me to opera, and especially to these Handel pieces, is that the music portrays so many different levels than what you find in straight naturalistic or spoken theater. Opera is a much more subconscious art form, a more opened-up art form that uses these different ways to get at things that are unspoken.”

Thomas May writes frequently for San Francisco Opera and blogs at memeteria.com.

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Partenope is "a nonstop parade of visual and vocal delights!"

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Surrender to Partenope's buoyant charms, and you may soon find your senses ravished and your funny bone delicately tickled."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Debuting conductor Julian Wachner brings Handel's score vividly to life."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Soprano Danielle de Niese gives a magnetic performance... her singing strong and vibrant throughout."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Danielle de Niese inhabited center stage with dazzling charisma."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
David Daniels' "Arsace was a triumph: full-toned, expressively probing and marked by vivid vocal colors."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Countertenor David Daniels was the evening's standout as Arsace. His voice is a marvel: large, brilliant, and full of feeling."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Daniela Mack delivered "athletic, perfectly tuned coloratura, letting the audience feel viscerally the depth of the character's ardor and pain."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Tenor Alek Shrader was a vocal dynamo as Emilio."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Anthony Roth Costanzo made an unforgettable Company debut as Armindo with an abundance of vocal allure and physical resourcefulness."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Philippe Sly "sang magnificently in his all-too-few arias."

San Francisco Chronicle

"The course of true love nearly runs amok in Partenope...a glorious romp through the world of amorous attraction."

San Jose Mercury News
 
"Director Christopher Alden's machinations are hilarious...playing the characters like chess pieces, moving them through episodes of love and rage, agony and rapturous bliss."

San Jose Mercury News
 
Julian Wachner "made an indelible impression...leading a buoyant reading of Handel's score."

San Jose Mercury News
 
"Andrew Lieberman's sets, expertly lit by Adams Silverman, are a marvel of unfussy elegance."

  –San Francisco Chronicle

Danielle de Niese

The Marriage of Figaro, 2010

David Daniels

Xerxes, 2011

Daniela Mack

The Barber of Seville, 2013

Alek Shrader

The Barber of Seville, 2013

Philippe Sly

The Magic Flute, 2013

Anthony Roth Costanzo

Operalia Competition, 2012

PERFORMANCES

  • Wed 10/15/14 7:30pm

  • Sat 10/18/14 7:30pm

  • Tue 10/21/14 7:30pm

  • Fri 10/24/14 7:30pm *

  • Thu 10/30/14 7:30pm *

  • Sun 11/2/14 2:00pm *


*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.

Sponsors

This production is made possible, in part, by The Bernard Osher Endowment Fund. Ms. de Niese’s and Mr. Daniels’ appearances are made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.