Julian Wachner’s approach to Handel perfectly complements the SFO production

Julian Wachner
San Francisco Examiner

By Stephen Smoliar

When I first saw the new San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope half-way through its six-performance run, I was almost entirely absorbed by the ingenuity and wit (often at the belly-laugh level) of Christopher Alden’s staging, originally created for the English National Opera and also shared with Opera Australia. Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for the final SFO performance, taking my subscriber’s seat that provides me with as rich a view of the orchestra pit as of the stage. This gave me an opportunity to appreciate better the contributions of conductor Julian Wachner.

I have already noted how Wachner’s pacing of the orchestra excellently complemented the rapid-fire comic turns of Alden’s staging, complete with drunk scenes, pratfalls, bathroom humor, and tap dancing. This is definitely the shortest three and one-half hour opera I have ever experienced. I was also impressed with his ability to balance the modern instruments of a reduced string section and oboes (with a few brief moments for flutes) with the historical instruments, which included two harpsichords, theorbo, and two natural horns. My only regret was that the horns did not do more. Their major appearance came at the end of the first act with a metaphorical hunting song delivered by Rosmira-as-Eurimene (Daniela Mack at her most splendid); and the sounds of those natural harmonics, tempered only by breath control, made the experience both chilling and consistent with the off-kilter tone of Alden’s production.

What I could better appreciate from my new vantage point was how well Wachner connected with all of the vocalists on stage. It was through his chemistry with each of the performers that the music came off with the intimacy of a piece of chamber music that happened to have more musicians than usual. This was not always an easy job. Emilio (tenor Alek Shrader) had to deliver one aria while trapped in a bathroom; and Armindo (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) had to negotiate some of the most elaborate embellishments while hanging on for dear life to the edge of a staircase. (Needless to say, having a countertenor sing one of Handel’s most richly coloratura arias while playing a drunk scene is more than enough to boggle the mind.)

Wachner also made some shrewd choices in allowing certain solo instruments to fill the entire space of the Opera House. I was particularly impressed at the number of recitative passages that were accompanied only by Michael Leopold’s theorbo. Peter Schickele used to make jokes about the inaudibility of the lute. The theorbo is much larger. (Anyone sitting on orchestra level can only see its neck sticking out above all the other musicians in the pit.) In addition to the usual rank of strings fingered through the fretwork, there are long bass strings that are only plucked; and they resonate with remarkable intensity. Leopold’s continuo work was often all that was required for the intimate scale of the verbal exchanges in the recitatives.

Also, it appeared that continuo cellist David Kadarauch was given a rest for the one aria that had an extended cello solo. Unless I am mistaken, that solo was taken by Thalia Moore. I assume that it was Wachner’s idea that the “voice” of the cello for this aria be different from the “continuo voice,” thus establishing a different relationship between solo vocalist and solo musician.

All this made for one of the richest operatic occasions I have had the pleasure to experience. Indeed, it was so rich that it was almost impossible to balance attention between the music and the staging. This was definitely an occasion that deserved coming back for a second time.