Partenope by the Bay: Handel in San Francisco

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Handel’s Partenope at San Francisco Opera Photo: San Francisco Opera.

If Flaubert was Madame Bovary, then Handel was Partenope. She is the title character of his 1730 opera, a big hit in its time, but then spurned for supposed tawdriness over the ensuing 250 years.

Partenope is a woman who thrives on adoration and the theatricality of life and love. Handel may himself never have found love, but no one approached his talents for conjuring it on the stage. Handel had wanted to mount Partenope in 1726, but the manager of the company, the Royal Academy of Music, rejected the libretto for its lasciviousness and emphasis on exposition and intrigue over virtuosic singing. An examination of the text proves these accusations to be unfounded: the manager was clearly more worried about the story’s comic elements, the brazen sexuality of the heroine, and a cross-dressing sub-plot that winks at same-sex relations.

Hemorrhaging cash paid out to Italian celebrity singers, the management scheme collapsed in 1728 and Handel took over as co-director. He now ushered Partenope from the wings into the limelight. Handel’s intuition, given shape and energy by his theatrical genius, proved correct: he had a hit. But the libretto also offered him the chance to experiment; a dynamic trio and quartet and other ensemble moments built into the recitatives expanded the operatic palette that was still dominated by a succession of solo arias.

Whatever his tastes in, and talents for, the sensual delights of the flesh (besides eating: at the banqueting table and in the pantry his lusts are well documented), Handel was, like his 1730 heroine, driven by the desire for adulation. The opera’s original libretto begins with Partenope, Queen of Naples, enthroned and surrounded by former, present, and future lovers. Eighteenth-century opera seria—serious opera—called for six main characters; all but Partenope appear to be men.

The opera opens with a festival paying tribute to the gods who have smiled on her Queendom, but the show within the show is far more about her than them. The monarch must have the first word, and she uses it to declaim on the magnificence of the city named for her, here in the 1730 libretto’s parallel English translation of the Italian sung on stage: “Thou lofty Walls that guard around / This great majestic City rais’d by me. Bright beaming God of Day, be now propitious. From the pure Height of thy unclouded Sphere, / Shed thy warm Lustre in her fertile Bosom. / May Swans and Eagles nest in Splendors there, / And nam’d from me, with thy auspicious Aspect.”

Partenope is not shy about her civic accomplishments, her diplomatic skill, or her body. Statecraft and sex mingle and mix in Handel’s musical theatre, spicily so in Partenope.

The fifth male will appear soon after this, in the opera’s second scene, but she is a he. Rosmira, Princess of Cypress, arrives disguised as a man, Eurimenes, clad in “Armenian Habit,” as the libretto puts it. There will be much business involving the hiding and exposing of her bosom, previously mentioned in the first scene, over the course of the ensuing drama. The culmination of these hijinks comes when the man she loves (her former fiancé, Arsace, the current lover of Partenope) must fight a duel with her. He demands that it be conducted bare-chested.

On Handel’s operatic stage, gender was as fluid as honey on a Neapolitan summer day. The heroes of history, from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar were sung by castrated Italian males who had, earlier in their careers, made their debuts in drag-playing female characters. Women sometimes played young men or boys. High voices frolicking, tickling the collective libido. A brace of manly bassos could bark authority or roil the azure waves with the white froth of concern, contempt, or downright confusion. And then there was the added frisson of disguise.

After Partenope praises herself and her city, Handel marshals a chorus, buoyed by laudatory horns, to lavish extravagant praise on her: “Viva viva Partenope viva, /Chiara al pari del Sole ch’adora” (Oh [long] live Parthenope! Live Ages o’ver, / Bright as the radiant God you now adore). Like Handel, Partenope does not lack for ego or for those who will stoke it. Naples was then the operatic engine of Europe, luring talent like Handel from afar and exporting legions of native musicians to northern cities, from St. Petersburg to London. With the opening spectacle within the spectacle of Partenope Handel praises his own operatic dominions and himself. The Queen sings for Handel, maybe even as him.

After further recitative (that form of exposition in which sung text is accompanied by simple chords from the harpsichord, except in dramatically decisive moments when the orchestra joins in), Partenope must take the first aria, a stunning depiction of the moral forces that power Handel’s theatrical works: love and destiny (L’Amor ed il Destin). Partenope sets both loose to fight on her behalf in rocking, slashing coloratura that charges ahead, resolute to the point of arrogance. She will have her “radiant crown” and her “feet [will not be] bound by chains.” In these ardent strains, moderns might want to hear a call for sexual liberation. Maybe Handel did too.

The supposedly amoral qualities of the piece appealed in 1730 and do so again nearly three hundred years later in inclusive, sometimes excessive San Francisco, whose current production of Partenope, the last opera of the famed company’s season, has been thrilling audiences this month. The production is the naughty child of noted director, Christopher Alden, and was originally put on a decade ago at the English National Opera in London. Handel was drawn to the comedic potential and possibilities of complex women entangled with pathetic, self-sorry men. Yet he took the pathos and passion seriously. Just because Partenope embraces lust, doesn’t mean she knows nothing of love.

Alden does not take opera seria seriously. The San Francisco Opera’s marketing material pitches the piece as a full-on comedy, and Alden converts Handel’s drama into an uninterrupted succession of silly gags that he believes will sustain audience interest. Alden moves the action to gender-fluid Paris of the 1920s and makes Partenope a libertine salonnière hosting the artistic avant-garde. Her outfits range from silver lamé ball gowns to Marlene Dietrich tails and top hat.

Yet even Dada wouldn’t forgive Alden’s pre-teen silliness. A duelist waves a banana as if it were a pistol. Other bananas get draped on a World War I-vintage German Pickelhaube by Partenope’s captain of the guard, Ormonte (agilely, authoritatively sung by baritone Hadleigh Adams). This campy military man finds himself trussed up in a pink-floral patterned hoop skirt and sports a long, intricate beard meant to make the post-modern morass of signs still more baroque. The sexually and militarily defeated Armindo (the emphatic, sure-voiced Nicholas Tamagna) sings his rage aria locked in the toilet, his flailing silhouette seen through frosted glass. Alden confuses fury and constipation. After much arduous singing and knob-rattling by Adams, he pokes his head out of the transom flap at the top of the doorway and tries, unsuccessfully, to heave his body through it while valiantly meeting the musical challenges hurtled at him by Handel and the vigorous conducting of Christopher Moulds leading the disciplined, dynamic opera orchestra in appropriately pared down configuration. Alden’s tricks worked: cheap laughs erupted to intrude on art. Audiences should have a good time in the theatre, but the obviousness of Alden’s slapstickery was relentlessly mocked by Handel’s endlessly inventive, adult music.

Thankfully, the clutter and cliché of the San Francisco production could not sap Handel’s magic.

The man Partenope favors at the opening, Arsace, was sung by dashing Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli, a rare singer who commands speed and accuracy, but also expressivity and elegance. His singing and acting make you believe that he can capture any heart. He also attends to the larger arc of his character and the succession of arias, saving his top volume and edge for moments of anger, like the Act II closer “Furibondo il spiro vento” (the furious winds blow) in which his unerring, vital passagework swirled through the cavernous War Memorial Opera House. Deploying his fortissimo at stragetic points, Vistoli is equally capable of drawing those in the last row of the auditorium into his emotional world with his softest pianissimo, as in his despairing arioso that cannily, poignantly refers to itself— “Mà quai note diemesti lamenti” (But what are these notes of lament). Ghosting the plaintive strings are two flutes, those Handelian signs of the broken heart. Vistoli colored his tone in shifting hues against this mournful sonic backdrop. Buffeted by circumstance, self-pity, and fecklessness, the caddish Arsace is put through the wringer by the tough-talking, cross-dressing Rosmira (the gutsy, yet refined Daniella Mack), who, in spite of her apparent self-possession, can’t help but love the bastard. Channeling Handel, Vistoli makes you feel the dilemma of devotion to a rogue.

The pairing of Vistoli with Julie Fuchs in the title role made for an ideal, unforgettable operatic union. Fuchs is an enthralling stage presence, captivating in sound and sight. She commands a fabulous, infallible vocal technique, is imaginatively expressive in her delivery, and her musical erudition is evident in the riveting variations she supplied on the repeat of the opening sections of her arias. Her sharply facetted ornaments, so crucial to baroque performance, sparkle. I expect it was directorial intervention that had her final cadential trill—called shakes in Handel’s time—hammed up to mimic to orgasmic climax. Faked, real, or represented, her decorations, one of the most difficult aspect of the style, are a delight.

The best move that Alden made was to rejigger the original score and give Partenope the final aria. For this showstopper, he brought down the curtain and had Fuchs step in front of it to sing on the lip of the stage just above the orchestra, alone and glorious. This late-in-the-game de-cluttering occasioned the warmest wit and sensuality of the entire night in the stupendously self-indulgent ode to humor, love (not war) and music: “Sì, scherza sì, sempre amor con doppia face”). Her musical lines flirting and fighting with the orchestra, Fuchs danced and glittered in her sequined gown as if entranced by her own voice and charisma. Her uninhibited cadenza interpolated a Taylor Swift lick in one of the many extended, extravagant displays on this triumphant evening. Her night on the boards enthroned her among the Handelian queens and goddesses, from the Bay of Naples to the San Francisco Bay.

Whatever foolishness is foisted on her and Handel’s opera, Partenope and her music come to life with performers of skill and daring whose craft and creativity vanquish interlopers like Alden. Through Fuchs, Handel as Partenope emerges as a god/goddess of the senses and the soul, a being who just wants to be loved. If the composer never found that in life, he did in the theatre. And we love him for it.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at