Handel Partenope

Opera Australia

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

March 12 – 31

After a lacklustre summer season – an unfunny Barber, a poorly sung Butterfly (second cast) – Opera Australia has come up trumps with its new production of Handel’s Partenope. Unusual for the genre, it is a satirical comedy in which director Christopher Alden has had a field day with his imaginative production, drawing from the visual language of Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and other surrealists of the 1930s. What surprised me most of all was the number of successfully funny moments, including some perfectly timed vulgarisms that might have seemed gratuitous and silly in less capable hands.

Many opera productions have failed because theatre directors intent on “saving” the art form have stuffed them up. On the other hand, many early works have been rescued from obscurity through imaginative new productions. Handel’s operas in particular have stood up remarkably well to a range of bold new theatrical ideas. Partenope is not one of the composer’s greatest scores, but it is served well by a clever staging such as this one.

There would be very few opera buffs left who would now prefer to sit through three hours of mannered and stilted baroque opera, in which characters in togas and helmets stand and deliver their arias like statues. And for those like myself who prefer to hear an opera sung in its original language, the adroit and sharply intelligent English version of Partenope’s libretto, as translated from Italian by Amanda Holden, should be a welcome change.

The cast was excellent; the singing outstanding, with Emma Matthews taking line honours in the regal title role. The diction of most of the singers – Jacqueline Dark’s in particular – was crystal clear. It is also noteworthy in a production such as this how far opera acting has come in the last twenty years.

Handel expert Christian Curnyn conjured remarkably good sounds out of the small orchestra, considering most of the players were not baroque specialists. Sitting at stalls level, I felt they were far better able to project than is usual in that theatre, although friends of mine seated toward the back of the stalls complained that the orchestral sound was poor from that distance.

Alden caused a huge row last year with his controversial production of Tosca. I was one of its admirers however, having spent a lifetime believing that Puccini’s opera was not updatable. Tosca and Partenope are worlds apart and yet I was bowled over by the way in which Alden had taken a three-and-a-half-hour baroque opera and made it into one of the most entertaining and riveting productions in recent memory.


Partenope continues at the Sydney Opera House until March 31. View the event details here.