Hadleigh Adams as Ormonte, Julie Fuchs as Partenope, and Nicholas Tamagna as Armindo in SF Opera’s Partenope | Credit: Cory Weaver

Partenope was a figure in ancient Greek myth, but unlike many such heroines, she was never transformed into a constellation. And yet, in San Francisco Opera’s current production of Handel’s opera of the same name, Partenope shines bright in the solstice skies, a pentad of other stars clustered around her. In this comic love story, six characters jostle in search of love — and most of them find it, once they give up some of their obsessive power-mongering and decide to enjoy what life has given them.

The audience at the War Memorial Opera House was clearly enjoying itself, delighted by the hijinks and the music. At Sunday’s matinee performance, even the kids near me stayed attentive through the 3½-hour run time. And no wonder — the performances were uniformly splendid, and the pacing kept everything going without being frenetic.

The mythical Partenope was a siren (one of those creatures who lure sailors to their deaths); she then became Queen of Naples (it’s a complicated story). In this production, the battles that ensue among the suitors of this alluring queen are cleverly translated into aesthetic squabbles in the heated world of the 1920s Paris avant-garde, a bloodless (but nonetheless exciting) warfare amid a contingent of Salvador Dalí-esque eccentrics.

A scene from SF Opera’s Partenope | Credit: Cory Weaver

In this revival of director Christopher Alden’s production, created for English National Opera and Opera Australia in 2008 and first staged in San Francisco 10 years ago, everything has a fresh sparkle: costumes by Jon Morrell; smart, vivid lighting, originally by Adam Silverman and reworked for this revival by Gary Marder; and a bizarrely playful set by Andrew Lieberman, with a daunting and elegant spiral staircase in Act 1, a second-story party room in Act 2, and a 20-foot-high blank white wall in Act 3 — the obvious place for an artist to mount a cheeky, risqué collage. The expressive staging and clever lighting made the action clear and engaging without overshadowing the music.

At the center is Partenope, sung by French soprano Julie Fuchs, here making her American debut as well as her role debut. Fuchs has a sexy fluidity both in her gestures and her coloratura. At first flirtatious and bossy, Partenope comes to value the love of the timid but faithful Armindo, the most unlikely of her suitors (American countertenor Nicholas Tamagna, spectacularly bumbling in his Act 1 aria, sung amid spine-crunching pratfalls on that spiral staircase). Fuchs sparkled with Traviata-like musical revelry, but it was her more introspective Act 2 aria, “Qual farfalletta” (Like a butterfly), that broke through the queen’s mask of gaiety to the insecurity inside — sung with lithe delicacy and emotion.

Daniela Mack as Rosmira and Carlo Vistoli as Arsace
Daniela Mack as Rosmira and Carlo Vistoli as Arsace in SF Opera’s Partenope | Credit: Cory Weaver

In accepting Armindo, Partenope has to let go of another suitor, the dashing Arsace, who turns out to be a flagrant double-dealer, having abandoned his former lover, Rosmira. He’s a cad, but a cad with conscience and complexity, especially as portrayed brilliantly in a series of arias by the Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli, making his SF Opera debut. The emotions come to the surface because the spurned Rosmira has stolen onto the scene, disguised as a man. Arsace’s Act 2 closer, the stormy “Furibondo spira il vento” (The wind is raging), makes it clear that he and the equally explosive Rosmira won’t settle down easily — and yet can’t do without each other.

Rosmira was played with feisty intensity by Argentine mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who also sang the role in the 2014 production. Rosmira’s aria “Io seguo sol fiero” — about hunting down Arsace like a stag in the forest — makes no bones about her courage and determination.

The tension between the two ex-lovers almost leads to a duel. Rosmira (still disguised as a man) challenges the treacherous Arsace. No blood is shed, however. The swords are put down when Arsace (who has fallen in love with Rosmira again) demands that the duel be fought without shirts. Rosmira declines, of course, and the couple finally reconciles.

Alek Shrader
Alek Shrader as Emilio in SF Opera’s Partenope | Credit: Cory Weaver

In the person of American tenor Alek Shrader, the intruder (and suitor) Emilio comes off as an eccentric surrealist, fixated more on his camera than on Partenope. With his hair flamboyantly elevated, the character seems to be channeling the present-day opera director Peter Sellars. Shrader’s comic body language was as virtuosic as his singing — one aria sung with a cigarette in his lips, another while he was half-stuck in the transom of a water closet (don’t ask).

Ormonte, Partenope’s majordomo, was sung by New Zealand baritone (and former Adler Fellow) Hadleigh Adams, his wry observation of the central hijinks adding a sparky irony to the drama.

Leading it all with verve was the English Baroque specialist Christopher Moulds, who seemed to find the perfect tempo and affect for each aria. Among many standout performances by the small orchestra, the horn duet in Rosmira’s Act 1 aria was exceptional.

The final star in the constellation was, of course, Handel, who composed Partenope in 1730 at the height of his powers, expertly keeping the audience’s attention and constantly changing things up with music that always supports and deepens the characters’ emotions.

There are two more performances of Partenope, on Tuesday and Friday this week.