Cher Public

Top hatters

When Mike Nichols was honored at the Kennedy Center, Elaine May said of his work: “Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful, and that have real impact, and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they’re as much fun as if they were trash.” Christopher Alden has pulled the same bit of trickery at the San Francisco Opera with a production of Handel’s Partenope that is so erudite and theatrically audacious and also such a rollicking ride, it’s hard to believe it isn’t crap.  

In its opening tableau, Alden’s conception threatens a certain Egoiste-commercial affectation, but it is immediately rescued by the director’s arsenal of responses to the inherently static nature of a three and a half hour parade of da capo arias. There is room in Alden’s vision for camp and slapstick and heartbreak and sex—the last mostly offstage, but for one instance of, well, jobus interruptus. (They hardly know us, they hardly know us.)  In the third act, there are flights of whimsy that teeter on the brink of precious, but by that time, it’s impossible to muster much objection.

Alden and his design team (sets by Andrew Lieberman and costumes by Jon Morrell, both masters of faintly disreputable elegance) have packed the stage with explicit visual references to Dada and surrealism and imbued it with an air of the cinematic. The setting, we are told, is Paris in the 1920s, but the characters, though mad as hatters, are modern and relatable, at least to those of us who are also mad as hatters.

All evening long, despite my delight in the production, I fretted over the idea of writing about Danielle DeNiese. The thing about reviewing for a blog you’ve read basically since Jenny Lind was on tour is, you figure out which singers bring out the Mean Girl in opera queens.

But, you know, fuck it. There are problems there—the middle register can be breathy in a way that detracts from lyrical pieces like “Qual farfaletta” and makes it hard to know how the fioratura is actually going in showpieces. Her ornamentation is intermittently tasteful. All singers are flawed, and these didn’t truly stand in the way of what I’d have to call a pretty complete performance. The dramatic craft was fully realized and the singing was, if unextraordinary, satisfying.

Alden imagines a physicality for his actors that is nearly as specific as that of Robert Wilson, if less ritualized. DeNiese inhabited this with a great deal of poise and spontaneity. She was not the only one to rise to the challenge: Anthony Roth Costanzo, apparently game for anything, sang one of his arias dangling off the edge of a spiral staircase and another, I shit you not, while tap dancing—with a limpid legato, no less.

Alek Shrader, in the finest performance of the night, dashed fearlessly through “Anch’io pugnar sapro” hanging halfway through a transom with seemingly limitless breath and staggering facility. His Emilio also pulled off unquestionably the funniest piece of stage business I’ve ever seen in an opera during “Barbaro fato”— the kind of thing that elicits actual laughter where most opera comedy strains for a titter.

It was a pity not to hear what he could have done with Emilio’s more lyric “La speme ti console”, which was cut, but a privilege to see what he and Alden made of this not quite fascinating character. If you remember Shrader from The Audition or the actual auditions that year, you will recall perhaps his floppy hair and also that he is not at all hard on the eyes, though he was done up here as the love child of Man Ray and Harold Lloyd.

Recent performances by David Daniels in the tedious pastiche Enchanted Island had led me to wonder in my artless Japanese way: what is it that’s supposed to happen to countertenors as they pass out of their jeune premier years? There is, sad to say, no countertenor Marschallin or Kostelnicka unless it’s Arnalta in Poppea, which ain’t much. Daniels’ solution, on the evidence of his Arsace, is to power through the things that are no longer easy on sheer will—”Furibondo” used to be a calling card and something he then seemed almost unfazed by and now is not—and sing the less flashy numbers with an exquisite, supple line that makes the other stuff seem tawdry.

Daniels was, after all, maybe the first countertenor who brought operatic phrasing to the Baroque and seemed not to be a part of that movement that played early music as if it were math homework. “Ch’io parta” was sung by someone who could, mutatis mutandis, sing great Verdi (putting aside that, long ago, in a less formal setting, he did.)

Daniela Mack
, a former Adler fellow, charmed the audience greatly in “Un altra volta ancor”, working the warm, even sound and impeccable technique that got her to the finals in Cardiff.  Philippe Sly, though young, seemed like luxury casting in the short role of Ormonte, handsome of voice and ridiculously assured in his florid singing. Conductor Julian Wachner seemed to share Alden’s mercurial perception of the piece, matching his hairpin changes of tone with luxuriant fits of brooding and elation, and his four-player continuo created endless nuance in recitatives.

If I’m not stepping on Opera Tattler’s turf, I should note that, at each intermission, the supertitle board displayed the score of the big cribbage game or whatever it was that was happening across town, because god forbid there be some space in America where sports aren’t automatically the overriding subject of conversation.

As Shrader crept onstage before the third act, holding what appeared to be a newspaper, some wag a few rows behind me posited aloud, in the spirit of life-as-caption-contest that has lately overtaken us all, “Giants won!” Because sports. I guess it’s not Just Plain Folksy of me, but the only Giants I need to hear about at the opera house are the ones in Wagner.

Photos: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

  • rapt


  • SF Guy

    Greg--Thanks for the excellent review; I’m really looking forward to seeing this next Friday. However, speaking as an ardent Netrebko fan who was considering the Macbeth Encore last night but opted instead for the Giants-Cardinals game (so sue me!), I need to give you some advice. If you think posting game updates on the supertitle screen is bad, please don’t risk a coronary by attending a performance on Opera at the Ballpark night, where the singers endlessly model Giants merchandise during the curtain calls, presumably for the amusement of the 40,000 or so seeing the showed streamed live on the Ballpark’s JumboTron; visions of Ailyn Perez in ball cap and large rubber hand will haunt your dreams for months afterwards.

    Go Giants!

    • DiDonato is an enthusiastic Royals fan, and there is a social media push to have her sing the national anthem at the World Series. She says she’s available and willing. A blog on The Wall Street Journal website has the story. I am ambivalent about it, because I am loath to form a united front with Bill Kristol on anything (see the link).

      The Pirates were pathetic for so long — something which has only changed in the last two years — that it has been hard to get excited about baseball for a long time for me, and this is a football town anyway. That said — and apologies, as well as thanks, to the Giants — it is good to have the friendlier of the two MLB teams from Missouri in the World Series.

  • laddie

    Wonderful review, Greg. Totally agree with your sentiments about the intrusion of sports at the opera house. YUK!

  • CarlottaBorromeo

    By far the biggest cheer during this evening’s tepid Ballo was for the news that the Giants had made it to the World Series. Far more worth cheering than anything going on the stage or in the pit!

    • SF Guy

      Hopefully the Game 3 news will be equally good at next Friday’s Partenope.

  • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

    I, too, skipped the “Macbeth” and accompanying Parterre Box chat in favor of the Holy Game of Baseball, and was damned happy that the Giants won so brilliantly tonight. The last two innings had easily as much drama as any opera, with the final, bottom-of-the-ninth/game-tied three-run home run as unexpected and thrilling as anything Ms. Netrebko can do. It’s going to be an exciting World Series this year!

    • Henry Holland

      The last two innings had easily as much drama as any opera

      But that’s unpossible! “The inherently static nature of a three and a half hour parade of da capo arias” has to be the apex of any form of drama!


      Great win for the Giants, but I’ll be rooting for the Royals in honor of an ex-boyfriend who grew up in KC and loved baseball.

      • Grane

        Don’t forget all the recitative!

    • Greg.Freed

      I can’t decide if I’m being a stick in the mud about the sportsball thing. I of course am happy for people to derive whatever joy they do out of Team A beating Team B, but I’m not kidding about the opera being a place I’m pleasantly accustomed to not having to do the particular blank look I do when the conversation turns to who ran around the little diamond more times than who else. For what it’s worth, I don’t expect baseball fans to give a shit whose B flat was more floaty than who else. Sports are everywhere, you know? I got asked what team I wished to run around the diamond THE MOST
      TIMES at a job interview. And did the blank look.

      • MontyNostry

        Greg, you are clearly not a Good Sport like Joyce is. It’s one of the secrets of her success.

      • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

        There was a period in my life when I realized that I was turning into the exact kind of opera queen I had grown to detest and purposely distanced myself from the art form – and the people who live and breathe it – for several years. My love of dance grew even deeper and I became a total Balanchine fanatic. I also realized that I could climb mountains and ride horses, and that the arcane rules and dramatic pace of baseball – which had been forced on me as a kid by a hateful stepfather – were suddenly attractive to me. I’ve also become a film fanatic with about 2,000 films on DVD going back to the apex of the French and Scandinavian silent film era. I like to keep a healthy mix in my life, but I will say that in my New York years, I knew exactly one person with whom I could to New York City Ballet one night and to a Yankees game the next.

        • Greg.Freed

          A healthy mix, not to say a frothy one, is certainly worth striving for. I went to baseball games with my family when I was a kid and don’t find it 100% uninteresting. (Nearer perhaps to 88% uninteresting.) I just sometimes weary of its presumed universal interest. To be fair, people cheered/were clearly interested. I’m sure at the Met, people checked baseball scores on their phones. Something about putting it on the supertitle screen just, for me, smacks of a sort of “aw shucks” cheaply populist gesture having to do with fears about the stuffiness of opera. Do they announce other things? Election returns?

          • SF Guy

            Greg--I’m sorry our non-compartmentalized ways have ruffled your feathers, but that’s just how we roll here. On World Series nights two years ago, the auditorium became the Night of a Thousand Eyes during scenery changes, as cell phones were turned on, scores checked, and the latest updates whispered to those within easy earshot. Anyone wishing to be spared the distractions of communal enthusiasm should check the Series schedule and exchange tix as necessary.

            • Greg.Freed

              If someone turned on their cell phone during a scene change, I’d be less apologetically annoyed. If the opera is such a poor distraction from the game, might a ticket exchange be just as appropriate for the baseball fan as for the person who chose the opera over the game as the evening’s entertainment?

            • SF Guy

              Who said anything about the opera being a poor distraction from the game? Like many here, I’m both an opera fan and a baseball fan, and see no difficulty being both at the same time--after all, we’re just getting score updates during appropriate breaks in the opera action. Why is this such a hot-button issue for you?

          • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

            Greg: I recall two incidents where politics were brought into theaters mid-performance. On 09 August 1974, during the first intermission of a mixed bill program by American Ballet Theater at New York State Theater (where they used to perform in the summer before they moved to the Met), a large screen was lowered and Richard Nixon’s resignation speech was played to a cheering and laughing audience. Makarova and the newly-arrived Baryshnikov then proceeded to dance the hell out of the “Don Q.” pas de deux. On 03 November 1992, a large video projector was set up in the lobby of City Center and during the intermissions of a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, the presidential election returns were shown. For a rare moment, we wished “Fact & Fancy” would be over so we could get the latest results. At the second intermission, when it appeared that Clinton was going to win, the atmosphere was giddy. At the end of the program, Clinton had clinched, and everybody was delirious. Dear Arkansan dancer Jeff Wadlington, taken from us far too soon, was announcing with great pride that he had been on the phone with his parents who were getting into the truck to drive to Little Rock to join the celebration.

            Over here, where almost everyone has what amounts to a TV which also works as a telephone in their pocket, it is not unusual for groups of people to gather at intermissions when there is an important soccer game going on. This doesn’t happen very often as Austria’s team sucks.

            And sorry to contradict you but I am quite sure that very few people at the Met were checking baseball scores last week as the Yankees has their worst season in almost 20 years and it was clear by August they would not be playing October Ball (I predicted this in early July), and the Mets… well, we won’t even go there.

            As for the assumption that baseball is of universal interest, please take into consideration that there are 30 Major League teams, each with its own stadium which holds between 35,000 – 45,000 people, and the regular season (not counting the playoffs and the World Series) consists of 162 games for each team, all of which are televised and carried on the Internet and any kind of mobile device. Do the math: as many as 100 million people attend a live ballgame, and millions more watch on TV or some other device.

            A few months ago at one of the festivals (Bayreuth, I think), I was introduced to a Japanese couple who spoke very little English. We made small talk as best as we could, but when I mentioned that I was originally from New York, they asked if I was a baseball fan. When I said yes, a Yankees fan, they just started chanting “Tanaka! Tanaka!” and I countered with “Ichiro! Ichiro!” So there some degree of universality to it.

            • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

              Let me correct myself: something seeded wrong in my last post, and I checked and the Nixon speech was on 08 August 1972, and the performances was a Makarova “Swan Lake” (I remembered it as being “Swan Lake” but when I checked my program archive saw the program from the following night -- I used to go almost every night in those years, especially in August).

            • Greg.Freed

              You’re welcome to contradict me but you haven’t. If you read again, I think you’ll find that I said I am sure people do check the scores on their phones, for that is what I did say.

            • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

              Greg: What I meant was that I doubt many people at Met performances would be checking their phones for baseball scores in the current post-season playoffs. Most baseball devotees are fanatical about their home teams (as bad as opera queens and their divas), and fans of the Yankees and, for example, their arch rivals the (dreaded) Boston Red Sox, are absolutely notorious (ah, that sense of community of being one voice in 40,000 rhythmically chanting “Boston sucks! Boston sucks!”). Given the Yankees’ pitiful performance this year (as I mentioned, their worst in almost 20 years), I doubt that many New Yorkers would be interested in the playoff games which determine the two teams which compete in the World Series (which starts on Tuesday) except perhaps for some Schadenfreude in watching Baltimore get stomped on by Kansas City (the KC Royals won the first four games of a best-of-seven series for the American League Championship; Baltimore beat out the Yankees in the Eastern Division by 12 games -- ouch!). For a lot of people, if your team isn’t among the 10 that get to play October Ball, interest fades until the next season (after six solid months of regular play), except perhaps for a look at the World Series. Now, if the Yanks were still in the game, that would be a different story…

  • Another great review, Greg. And I agree about DeNiese. She’s not a bad singer and in fact is quite a good performer overall. Sometimes “overrated” turns to “she can’t sing”.

    • Krunoslav

      Sometimes “overrated” is termed “the ideal 21st century singer” and “the future of the industry” by the craven.


      • Again, I agree that she’s overrated, specifically as a singer. And it should be said that her voice was more attractive when she first burst onto the scene.

        • Clita del Toro

          She’s overrated “specifically as a singer.” What a hysterical statement. LOLOL Oh, like Rembrandt could be overrated, specifically as a painter; FL Wright, overrated specifically as an architect. Isabelle Huppert, as an actress.
          Oh well, at least DeNeise is sexy?????

          • Opera singers are required to act, hold the stage, you know, other things than singing specifically.

            • Greg.Freed

              Just so.

            • Clita del Toro

              I know that, Kashie. But they call themselves musicians, singers, sopranos, etc., not stage animals or singing actresses or acting singers. If you are a great singer you can hold the stage without shaking your booty and looking like Raquel Welch! ;) At least I hope so.
              If someone is overrated or not good as a singer, IMO, that disqualifies them, period.
              Not that I don’t like wonderful singers who can act up a storm like: Rysanek, Callas, Mödl, Scotto, Gobbi, Della Casa, Schwarzkopf, Schwanewilms, Mattila, Jones, W. Meier, etc.

            • Clita: You’ve known me long enough to know how highly I value singing above all else. But your previous post was, let’s just say, rather obtuse.

              DeNiese is pretty good singer with an OK voice (that used to be nicer than it is now) and she is charming and attractive stage presence.

              Some say that she is a fraud and much worse. I don’t agree.

            • Clita del Toro

              Sorry about that. I know, kashie, how you love and value singing. Your statement just struck me as funny. If someone wrote, “She’s a great singer, but overrated as an actress.” I would say, well, fine with me! I’ll get over it. ;)

            • SF Guy

              Kosman’s Chron review is out; score one for the skeptics:
              (“Unfortunately, the evening’s one weak link was the Partenope of soprano Danielle de Niese…”)

  • Grane

    Yes, excellent review. I am now looking for more opportunities to use the phrase “intermittently tasteful.” There must be some.

  • Milady DeWinter

    “intermittently tasteful.” There must be some.

    Yes, like a bowl of delicious designer jelly beans. Once in a while you’ll get the spearmint/coffee/chili-flavored one. It may look enticing, but ugh. Like Ms. DiNiese’s vocalism in general.

  • Grane

    Any thoughts on why the intermittently lovely DeNiese is not in the HD broadcasts for either of her Met operas this season?

    • Hippolyte

      I take DeNiese’s absence from all HDs this year as evidence that God really does hear (and answer) our prayers.

  • Milady DeWinter

    No Grane -- but, full disclosure, I did sort of enjoy her Despina. Guess I had a taste for the odd jelly bean that day.

    • I liked her Despina too but she had this annoying habit of straightening the tone on certain notes as if she was whining or crying. A few of those give some character to her recits. But throwing it into every recit is mannered at best.

      • MontyNostry

        I’m afraid the word that comes most readily to mind with DdN’s singing is ‘glassy’, though I will also admit to ‘well-schooled’, in that she can do a surprising amount with an unexceptional instrument.

  • MontyNostry

    And Dani’s consecration as the f***ing Brits’ people’s diva continues with her appearance in this extravagant and pointless piece of self-indulgence from the BBC. She makes her appearance at about 2’19”, not quite looking light as air. (For a second, I thought it was Simon Rattle at 1’29”.)

  • DeepSouthSenior

    I find myself more out of place than usual in entering into this conversation. One phrase was so striking, though, that I just had to comment. I’m still trying to conjure up a proper mental image of Anthony Roth Constanzo “tap dancing—with a limpid legato.” That must have been quite a sight, and they quite a pair.

    I will have no more criticisms of “Dancin’ Danielle,” ever, after seeing her live as Despina at the Met last May. How such a little thing could rope-pull that set all the way across the stage is a mystery to me. Such awesome strength wedded to beauty and talent is overwhelming. And she sings some, too.

    • Operngasse

      I guess until someone smuggles out of the War Memorial some video of Mr. Constanzo tap dancing to Handel, this clip of him tapping to Gershwin will have to do:

      • SF Guy

        A few seconds of tap dancing can be seen at about the 4:40 mark:

        The Gershwin clip is fabulous--thanks much!

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          Looks like David Daniels as Hans Sachs!

      • Rudolf

        @ Opern Gasse
        Thanks so much for this upload. Such fun!!! Roth Costanzo may not be my ideal Gershwin voice but …

  • Krunoslav

    “I will have no more criticisms of “Dancin’ Danielle,” ever, after seeing her live as Despina at the Met last May. How such a little thing could rope-pull that set all the way across the stage is a mystery to me. Such awesome strength wedded to beauty and talent is overwhelming. And she sings some, too.”

    “Some” being the operative word.

    The COSI production was created for Bartoli’s debut, to cause a sensation at her entrance, so the set-pulling is not unique to Glyndebourne’s chatelaine. Bartoli, Claire Gormley, Nuccia Focile, Dawn Upshaw and Marie McLaughlin, none of them weight lifters, have all “pulled” that set-- or rather , looked like they were pulling it.

  • Greg.Freed

    Look, I just said it annoys me. I didn’t say they shouldn’t do it. I do think people shouldn’t turn their phones on during short breaks and I do yeah kind of think it indicates a certain lack of interest in the opera, and that’s that. You’re the one pulling this adolescent routine where you poke at me and then get all “hey man, why so uptight?”

    • SF Guy

      Greg--You also characterized SFO management’s practice of putting scores on the supertitle screen as a “cheaply populist gesture.” You’ve made your feelings on the matter clear, as have I. Time to move on.

      • Greg.Freed

        With pleasure.

  • Greg.Freed

    That didn’t go in the proper subthread but it’s probably just as well.

  • Will

    I’d like to refute the notion that Arnalta in Poppea “isn’t much.” She may have no great showpiece arias, but she’s the chief comedian of the opera, has some fine scenes with other characters, especially with Poppea, and she gets to set up the final scene after the great Farewell to Rome by the discarded Empress with a very funny but also profound scena. Arnalta and her “sisters” (they were meant to be sung by men) were the set up for roles in Elizabethan drama like the bawdy Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (also played by a man). Don’t underestimate the lady.

    • Howling in Tune

      OH, Arnalta is quite a good role. But it’s only one role; I think the idea was that there are few (if any) other good roles for aging countertenors, where there are several for sopranos, a few more for mezzos, and lots and lots for basses.

    • Krunoslav

      “Arnalta and her “sisters” (they were meant to be sung by men) were the set up for roles in Elizabethan drama like the bawdy Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (also played by a man). ”

      But Will, Elizabethan drama predates Monteverdi’s opera by 50 years.
      ROMEO AND JULIET -- c. 1591-95
      POPPEA- 1642

      ” She may have no great showpiece arias”

      Also, I think her lullaby “Adagiati, Poppea… Oblivion soave” is one of the greatest pieces in POPPEA, and it can bring down the house-- or leave a hushed, awed silence.

    • MontyNostry

      I went to a studio-style Poppea a couple of months ago in which the Arnalta, a young mezzo called Rosie Aldridge, outdid both the Poppea and Nerone for voice and charisma!

  • mountmccabe

    Thank you for the review! I am really excited to see the performance on Tuesday.

    I should go to opening night at SFO one of these days; I missed this one because I opted for Macbeth replay because I was busy on Saturday.