[Cecily's note: this review comes courtesy of my lovely friend, Heather, who is spending the spring in NYC. With this and the possible Dutchman tomorrow, we here at ATC are engaging in a bit of blog tourism before the Toronto opera scene kicks into gear next week with Figaro]
In the first act of Partenope, the heroine of Handel’s three-act comedy is surrounded by eager suitors, who are seated as she sings and struts in pink heels around them. Dressed in a rose coloured sixties-style dress suit, the princess, like Joan from Mad Men, is playfully conscious of her appeal to the opposite sex. Sieden breezes through this difficult aria, this experienced soprano confidently hitting the astonishingly high notes in this and subsequent scenes. As the title character of this comedy set in Naples, she has a lot of singing to do. Vocally, she is plainly up to the task. Her exertions are supported by an orchestra (under the capable baton of Christian Curnyn) that sounds equally at home with this lively, perhaps a little lengthy, slice of the Baroque.
By turns, Partenope’s suitors sing about their feelings for the princess, who favours Prince Arsace for much of the opera, though she ends up with the more boyish Armido. Both heroes are countertenors (the first 1730 London production would have featured a castrato, however); the trio of suitors is rounded out by a tenor, the warlike Emilio, who desires both Partenope’s heart and land. Armido’s first aria, sweetly expressing his unrequited love for Partenope is exquisite, promising much for later solos. But the honeyed countertenor never quite reaches the same heights of beauty in later acts. Moreover, the youthful Anthony Roth Costanzo lacks the stage presence his rival (and superior) countertenor, who shines in scenes with his ex-lover, Rosemira, who disguises herself as a man after her fiancé abandons her for royalty. Tall and athletic, Stephanie Houtzeel, a solid mezzo-soprano, is hands-down the best actor in the opera. Consequently, I felt real investment in her trials as a scorned lover and incipient matchmaker (between Partenope and Armindo).
The costumes, colourful and basically modern, are neither distracting nor particularly striking. (Some part of me always hopes, however, that the characters will don the ridiculously elaborate wigs, face patches, and waistcoats of Handel’s day.) The set too is pleasant, neither lavish nor skimpy, lending a casually eighteenth-century feel to the work. Most memorably, a starry sky of lights is the backdrop to one lover’s evening song of yearning. Fire is also used to great effect, a model of the city of Naples opening to reveal an inner flame. An interesting visual motif—an orb nestled in a cube—is repeated with variation throughout the opera. Seen several times in the hands of the princess’ (unfortunately rather dull) tutor, Ormonte, this symbol reinforces the central theme of the cultivation of reason.
The director, Francisco Negrin, has several obstacles to overcome in order to make this dramatically and musically exciting to a modern audience not used to being so drenched in coloratura. Honestly, it is sometimes hard work to enjoy all of the florid arias and silly plot twists. During one of the two intermissions I overheard a lady in the restroom remarking, with a smile, on the “corny” storyline. Hence, I will refrain further summarizing the nuances of the plot, with its duels, cross-dressing, overheard conversations, etc. The story, like that of many other operas from Handel and company, is a collection of narrative stereotypes—albeit one with very likable characters. Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, with its musty clichés, does not dull a work that overall sparkles musically. Minor quibbles with the revival production aside, I was delighted to experience such a high-quality performance of a relatively little-performed eighteenth-century opera, especially one that displays so prominently the voices of two countertenors!
Sadly, it’s over now, so you can’t enjoy it as I did. Burn.