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.