Handel, Partenope. New York City Opera, 4/3/2010. Conducted by Christian Curnyn with Cyndia Sieden (Partenope), Iestyn Davies (Arsace), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo), Stephanie Houtzeel (Rosmira), Nicholas Coppolo (Emilio). Production by Francisco Negrin, directed by Andrew Chown.
Now that we have finished our Shakespeare unit we are starting the reverse-Blumenmädchen part, that is some ladies who have entranced--either by their natural charms or their magical charms--a large number of hapless high-voiced men. Most of these ladies are named Armida, and we will soon encounter the Met's example of this, but today we will be discussing the all-natural, no magic required Partenope, in Handel's opera of the same title.*
This is a somewhat obscure opera, though this isn’t its first time at City Opera, and this production is a revival. NPR World of Opera has a nice plot summary and introduction here. Partenope is a comedy, more or less, which means that the constant comedy applied by directors to most Handel opera actually is appropriate this time. Francisco Negrin’s production, revived by Andrew Chown, however, doesn’t push the outrageous button very many times, and manages to impart a good deal of humanity to the characters.
The orchestra was modern, and since I mostly listen to Handel as performed by period orchestras, this was a bit different (not in a good way in my opinion, I love my HIP). The result is fleet rather than springy, and in the first act I felt like conductor Christian Curnyn’s tempos were far too fast to allow the music to breathe or have any shape. But either he calmed down or I got used to it because the second two acts seemed much better.
Francisco Negrin’s setting is modern abstract, and like L’Étoile, the characters kind of color-coded. The single set is a set of moving white and turquoise walls that resemble a less run-down version of wherever the Met's Hamlet was set, and appear to be built for a smaller stage than the one on which they currently reside. However in Personenregie it is mostly naturalistic, no choreography for the arias, the fanciful elements are limited to the costumes and occasional ambiguously symbolic objects appearing onstage.
Sometimes Negrin (Chown?) stages a da capo aria as a single continuous narrative, sometimes the da capo (the A’ of the ABA’ structure) as a variation of the first A, echoing the musical structure. Particularly considering the realistic staging of most of the other action, I thought the first strategy considerably more effective. The lighting design also acknowledges the structure of the music, mostly very effectively--a shame there was so much ugly pink light.
Most of the singers had no trouble with the quick tempos. Cyndia Sieden as Partenope zips through everything at warp speed with her laser-bright soprano, and also float nicely on the slow stuff. She may lack a certain degree of charisma or glamor or something, she seemed a bit too nice, but was always a pleasure to hear.
As Rosmira, a woman disguised as a man who sings in the same range of the countertenors (oh, Handel, you trickster!), Stephanie Houtzeel was very good, with a rich and warm sound and excellent high notes, and was fun onstage. Her coloratura is excellent but her low notes didn’t seem that big, I see in her bio she’s headed to Strauss repertoire, where she’ll probably sound great.
The two countertenors were both excellent and a study in contrasts, which is good when you have two major characters in the same fach. Iestyn Davies has a clear, bell-like sound with a lot of pure beauty, but also of considerable virtuosity, particularly in the ridiculous “Furibondo spira il vento” (see video below). Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo is more nasal and heavier on the vibrato (also sounded best on his high notes, I wonder if this role is low for him?). Nicholas Coppolo as lesser suitor Emilio (tenors not enjoying the starry status of castrati in Handel’s day) sang just as much coloratura with a pleasant Mozart-tenor ish sound.
The production ended up being a nice break from the madcap and the wacky, there was none of the sensory overload that some Handel stagings can produce, the plot was easy to follow, it was funny when it should be funny, and we got to concentrate on the virtuosity of the singing. Could it have been a little sexier? Yeah, probably, but sometimes moderation is a good thing.
City Opera has declined to provide any photos of the current cast, so I attempt to evoke the glory of Handel’s London period below:
Next: I may drag myself to the Armida prima if I can find companionship, because I hear there are going to be GIANT SPIDERS and as someone who has read and watched Lord of the Rings an unseemly number of times I do love a giant spider. Can't wait for Tosca because OMG Patricia Racette and Fabio Luisi! This ticket's value seems to be increasing rather than decreasing with the substitutions. Just don't mess with my tenor and we're good.
*Yes, this is one of the many things in opera that pisses off a feminist. These lady-learns-a-lesson operas always grate. Lady is always so much more boring after she is reformed and married off. But I can usually ignore it and deal. (My gender politics are always up for a good Fidelio, though. ALWAYS.)
“Furibondo spira il vento,” Philippe Jaroussky (sorry, Iestyn, you aren’t on the YouTube!)