As New York’s second opera company, City Opera has evolved as a venue for experimental and less frequently performed works. In no repertoire is this more apparent than Handel, where daring productions of the composer’s operas face no serious competition from any other American company (apart for Julius Caesar and the recent Rodelinda, the Met barely touches it). In recent seasons the newly named David Koch Theater has witnessed Ariodante, Xerxes, Rinaldo, Orlando, Alcina, Acis and Galatea, Semele, and Agrippina, in addition to Partenope, which dates from 1998.
Francisco Negrin’s effort is a light take but suitable for an opera that combines a comedic plot with instances of real drama. John Conklin’s airy, pastel sets evoke the Italian south of one’s imagination, with pale blues and greens suggesting the warmth of sky and sea. Paul Steinberg’s bright costumes place us there in an outré modern milieu that might well be the province of the royalty and nobility who populate the cast.
The plot of Partenope demands a steady stream of male voices. The title character, the Queen of Naples, has three suitors – the Greek princes Arsace and Armindo in residence and a would-be foreign conqueror Emilio, the ruler of the barbarian Cumans. Arsace is pursued by a jilted lover, Rosmira, who arrives to reconquer him in a male guise only he can see through. Seeking his heart through Partenope’s offices, Rosmira contrives to force him into a duel, which Arsace unmasks by demanding, as the right of the challenged, that the combatants fight stripped to the waist. Partenope succumbs to her original instinct to fall for Armindo, Rosmira and Arsace are more or less happily reunited, and Emilio, though undefeated in battle, learns humility and accepts Partenope’s friendship rather than her love.
The opera draws great interest as a period piece. After a rather dull first act, the second and third parts blossom into a cornucopia of well designed arias that require a virtuosity characteristic of Handel’s better works. The heavily male cast is well served in City Opera’s revival. We live in a veritable age of countertenors, and both the young (27) Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Armindo and Iestyn Davies’s Arsace were models of the genre with their crystal clear diction and a purity of sound that the vocal type uniquely demands. Tenor Nicholas Coppolo carried off the role of Emilio with real feeling, and City Opera veteran Daniel Mobbs sang well as Partenope’s tutor Ormonte, the opera’s lowest part. Cyndia Sieden did rather less well in the title role, sounding consistently underpowered. Stephanie Houtzeel matched her colleagues as Rosmira, combining dramatic talent with fine mezzo singing that has filled the proverbial trousers of Richard Strauss’s Octavian and Composer in major houses. Christian Curnyn’s conducting followed the intricacies of Handel’s score with remarkable feeling.