Music director Christian Curnyn wants to show Australia a lighter side of Handel in bold, tragi-comic romp Partenope.

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I have seen Kanen Breen in some strange and compromising positions in various Opera Australia productions, but I have never, until now, seen him singing through what looks like a bikram yoga routine. Last week I was admitted into the last half-hour of a rehearsal for Handel’s Partenope before catching up with the production’s music director, English harpsichordist and conductor Christian Curnyn. It was here that I saw the Australian tenor contorting himself into an upside-down arch even as he fired off a pitch-perfect coloratura aria. I just hope there was a chiropractor waiting in the wings.

Even in this staged rehearsal sans orchestra – piano, harpsichord, theorbo and cello – the singing was so ravishing that Breen’s exotic poses didn’t distract from the music. I was lucky enough to sit in on the denouement of the final act, in which a duel is decreed between Arsace (a dapper, blue-suited Catherine Carby in the pants role) and Prince Eurimene (Jacqueline Dark), who is in fact Arsace’s jilted lover Rosmira in disguise. The cross-dressing of both performers and characters adds a layer of intrigue. A statuesque Queen Partenope (Emma Matthews) looks on. After all the excitement of Rosmira’s revelation comes Partenope’s joyful, worldly summation aria followed by the final, rapturous chorus.

Christopher Alden’s decadent 1920s Parisian setting looks a treat, and Amanda Holden’s accessible English translation of the original Italian libretto is peppered with disarming slang (“Crikey!” exclaims the Queen of Naples) but it is the music I am reporting on, all deftly handled from the pit. In rehearsal, on the opera’s final F Major chord, Curnyn raised his arm in a mock-theatrical wave and sang his own cadence – “Goodbye!” – in the same key, signalling the end of the opera and the rehearsal. Here is a man with a sense of humour about Handel, and also one of England’s most dynamic musicians, leading the way in historically informed Baroque performance. His London-based ensemble, Early Opera Company, won the prestigious Stanley Sadie Handel Recording prize for Semele (Chandos CHAN0745) and has toured Alden’s production of Partenope in England and the United States. Now it’s Australia’s turn. Curnyn asserts that there are no weak arias in Partenope and likens the quality of the music to that of Julius Caesar. He tells Limelight why it’s a must for opera buffs.

You have taken Partenope to the English National Opera, Aldeburgh Festival and New York City Opera, and it was your debut recording on Chandos. You keep coming back to it. How has it come to hold such a special place in your repertory?

 Partenope is certainly not undiscovered anymore, and it’s one of Handel’s real masterpieces. It’s got a fantastic tragi-comic feel about it that I love: it’s really very funny, but also very moving, whereas a lot of Handel’s operas are very, very serious. This has light touches in the way he scores it in the orchestra, the language is very funny, and all this cross-dressing is a great satire of what was going on at the time.

Why do you think it hasn’t been performed more frequently as one of his core works?

Partenope is from the middle period of Handel’s output. Even at that time it was considered a bit risqué, so it took a while for people to realise quite how good it was. You’d look at the libretto and the story and think, “this doesn’t really work”. It’s something that needed to be performed and seen on stage for people to understand its enormous value.

Risqué because the title role is such an empowered female character?

Partenope is certainly in total command; she’s not in any thrall. She is very a very contemporary figure who resonates with contemporary audiences. But empowered females are quite common in Baroque opera; they tended to become victims in the 19th century. Partenope is unusual in the fact that she doesn’t really go through anything deeply upsetting trial or transition. Everyone else seems to have gone on some huge journey, particularly Rosmira and Arsace as a couple. She just says, “Look, love is Cupid playing, it’s all silly – we all do it for fun”.

You mention Partenope takes everything in her stride when it comes to love: does her well-known Act One aria, Love and Fate Shall Meet, sum up the central conflict of the opera?

That’s more a showpiece – she’s showing off in front of her friends. Everything about the opera is in the last aria when she sings, “Cupids play, always teasing”. She’s like a butterfly flitting between flames but she doesn’t want to get burnt, so she keeps men at a certain distance; she’s quite unusual in the fact that she’s gotten to her stage in life without being married, though I think she’s very happy having all these courtier men running around after her! She’s also the founder of Naples. She’s a builder, a sort of Cleopatra without Caesar. Cleopatra was going good guns until she started getting involved with men, and then it was all downhill!

You’re presenting the opera for its first outing in Australia. How does that feel, and what are you hoping the audiences will come away with?

Most of the Handel operas staged by Opera Australia – Alcina, Orlando and Julius Caesar – have been very big, heavy, serious pieces. Partenope is entirely different, and I hope people will come along and see it as more of a light, uplifting evening. I hope they see that Handel had a good sense of humour, which you don’t often get to experience. That’s when he’s at his most touching, when you get something that is really absurd right next to an aria that is totally mind-blowingly moving.

How are you finding the rehearsals? Were you involved in the casting?

It’s been cast with all company singers, which is a great thing because they all know each other very well; it’s a very easy atmosphere. It’s definitely a different sort of work ethic in Australia. It’s something people enjoy and it’s a job in the best sense of the word. In Europe often when you assemble a cast it’s a disparate group of people who don’t know each other and they all have something to prove, whereas it’s not like that with the singers here at all.

You’ve worked with the finest Handelian singers in England. Vocally, how do the Australians measure up?

They’re absolutely up there with the best. It’s a very strong, even cast – a real ensemble feeling, which is often quite hard to get in Handel. Emma and Richard and Jacqui and company have all known each other for years and years and are all good friends, which makes a big difference.

What is your ornamentation policy? Do you rein them in or push the envelope?

I’d like to say it’s a democracy because that’s the nice thing to say, but it’s not really! I’m quite firm. I’ll never ask them to sing an ornament they don’t like or don’t agree with, but I never want an ornament in there that I haven’t sanctioned. There has to be a house style: you can’t have some people ornamenting something in a crazy way and other people ornamenting very simply. You also have to take different singers into account; for instance Emma’s voice is higher set than Rosemary Joshua’s, who performs the same role on the recording, so we put in some higher ornaments.

I’m not really a great fan of ornaments to show off the voice. They should be there to show off the text and the drama, rather than adding high notes for no reason. People say that’s not what it was about, because the Baroque was about showing off the voice, but in fact it was about showing off the singers’ intelligence.

Walk us through your favourite moment, dramatically and musically. Do you have a favourite aria?

I Leave You in Act Three is so simple, and it defines this amazing relationship between Rosmira and Arsace. We see it in a comic vein because she’s dressed as a man and pretends to be in love with Partenope, but in fact she’s come to find her betrothed, who’s run off with someone else. It’s all been a bit of a game to Arsace – he’s a real player – but here we see this incredibly deep moment and realise how much they love each other.

You’ve collaborated on this production with Christopher Alden before and it won an Olivier Award. How do you both negotiate the right balance of music and drama?

We get on very well; we’re good friends and we share the same sort of aesthetic. Chris is deeply musical, knows the score inside out. He likes to push and I don’t hold him back – I tend to push with him! With the Early Opera Company I’m very specific with directors that it has to be in some sort of contemporary setting. I don’t like recreations of Baroque style – big wigs and frocks – I think it just makes it into a museum piece. I like the way Chris, especially in this production, goes into the absurd, Dada-esque qualities that work with these pieces, because there’s nothing more unnatural than opera. And there’s absolutely nothing more unnatural than Handel opera!

I’m also very interested in what’s happening on stage. We’ve got a good enough relationship that Chris will ask me what something looks like; I’ll give my advice and he’ll ask for it. Likewise he’ll say, “I think this should go a little faster”, so it’s a real collaboration.

You founded your Baroque ensemble, Early Opera Company, in 1994 when you were in your twenties. What gave you the idea?

I’d fallen in love with opera. I always loved Baroque music – I was a trumpet player, and I’d played harpsichord at university in a few little operas – but I wasn’t really sure at that stage whether it was what I wanted to do. Then I saw a few productions, in particular Julius Caesar directed by Willy Decker at the Scottish Opera, and an incredibly amazing Ariodante at ENO that David Alden, Christopher’s twin, worked on. Before I saw those, I didn’t really know about Handel operas. Even in the early nineties they weren’t often performed, certainly not with the frequency they are now.

And so you became part of the younger generation of Baroque revivalists.

Yes. When I started out, everything I did was considered sort of crazy – too fast, too pushed –  and now things have changed so much that I’m considered a traditionalist!

What compelled you to specialise in Handel?

That’s just where most of the work comes from. He’s certainly my favourite composer, which is lucky because that’s where I spend most of my time. I could easily conduct Handel every day of my life, but it’s nice to do other composers as well!

Like the English composers you’ve championed on Chandos?

Exactly. Hopefully the next recording will be Solomon by William Boyce, an incredibly beautiful 18th-century oratorio. But next year I’m also doing Handel’s Xerxes with a big, starry cast. That’s a big recording project, three discs. To combine that with unusual repertoire as well is a thrill.


Partenope opens at the Sydney Opera House March 12. View the event details here.