Sunday, October 19, 2014
Handel's Partenope at the San Francisco Opera
…thanks to a senior rush ticket that placed me at an ideal spot in center orchestra…
18 October 2014
At the San Francisco Opera House, about to hear an opera, I looked at the gold masks either side of the stage, the Mask of Tragedy and Mask of Comedy. I noticed that in both masks the eyes were troubled. Tragedy’s eyes were wide with horror. Comedy’s eyes winced with pain.
The San Francisco Giants won the pennant and the San Francisco Opera is presenting Handel’s comic opera Partenope (“par-TEN-opee”), and for me, Travis Ishikawa’s joyous final run around the base that won the Giants the pennant was precisely echoed in counter tenor David Daniel vocally running the line in Handel’s music.
Some people find Handel not to their taste, and I imagine that they avoid attending Handel operas. There are others who appear to come to hear Handel specifically because they will be credited with acute taste when they complain how much they dislike the opera they are hearing. One must put up with their never varying remarks, or not enough tickets will be sold to assure future productions of Handel.
The woman who lectured before the opera understood how some cannot maintain interest in a 3 or 4 hour opera, and reminded us that in Handel’s day people often sat in boxes where they could draw curtains during that time, to converse, dine, play cards, or make love so they did not find the opera going on outside the box to be tedious.
I don’t know if there are written records describing the physical direction and staging of his comic operas, but I must assume that he wanted his comic operas to be funny, and so I have to assume that we are cheated when the operas are not directed as Christopher Alden directed this production – the endless run of luscious arias, sung beautifully, punctuated with visual comedy that never interfered with great singing – with special surprises, as when in Act One someone sang an aria while hanging by his hands in mid-air. The cast met physical as well as vocal challenges.
Central in Act II was a bathroom, often open with someone sitting on the toilet. (At the moment when a suitor is singing about his love for Partenope, she, in the bathroom, flushes the toilet.) The longest applause of the evening was for Emilio (Alek Shrader) after one of his long slapstick episodes that began with his singing the most difficult section of an aria while balanced on his stomach in the transom over the bathroom door (as he had been locked in).
Besides many comical visual moments, there were all the usual Handel tricks – Partenope singing of a butterfly on the air with an aria that sounds like a butterfly on the air.
The lecturer before the opera is from Naples that in B.C. was called Partenope, and in A.D. became Naples, a contraction for Italian words meaning “New City.”
She described the formula for these kinds of operas – one aria each for various emotions or moods, no moods repeated immediately.
Even the manner of singing – the show-off elaboration – could become comic, a reflection of the vanity of the character. I am at the point in a James Baldwin novel where people are trading sexual partners and being uncertain who they love or don’t love, and that was precisely the subject of the opera, with the various moods of love from foolish to pining, but whimsical and sophisticated, with some wonderful slapstick.
Just to overplay how whimsical the production was at times, in the last act someone tap-danced while singing an aria.
Nevertheless, only for those who love Handel.