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13 March, 2011

Partenope Act I. Then I lost patience.

Partenope – Saturday 12th March 2011 Sydney Opera House.

George Frederick wrote this work knowing that it had a bizarre and unfathomable story line with many comic one-liners included. However, Handel also knew that since it was done in Italian and most of the London patrons were already inebriated before the show, the story would not matter as long as the orchestra strummed its bits and the castrato did the requisite numbers.

I have to confess that your correspondent has let you down on this occasion, being unable and unwilling to sit through more than the first act of this long and tedious show.

To me, the audience was more interesting than the opera … containing as guest of honour one of the great singers of the age, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli who was seated next to the artistic director Lyndon Terracini while Governor Marie Bashir sat with Adrian Collette. Further along the row was Leo Schofield. Aubrey Murphy was in the audience rather than playing his fiddle. Bronwyn Bishop is an obligatory fixture at opera openings. Robert Gay the opera savant was there with lots of other hopefuls.

There were over a hundred good seats unsold and there were also numerous opera company members, some VERY casually dressed in what must have been complimentary seats (nobody I know in the company could afford $300 for such seats). Empty seats on a Saturday opening night are not a good sign for a company intent on doing Wagner’s Ring operas (and in a single year by all reports!).

The opening set was splendid, being a surrealist curving white stairway leading to a full-width mezzanine which strangely was not used in the action of act one. Much of the drama in fact took place on the lower few stairs, stage left. This was almost in the wings as if it were designed for a larger theatre. And it was! This was a co-production with the English National Opera whose enormous stage it was designed for (see their set pictured below). It is not called the “Coliseum” for nothing: its stage is 17m wide versus 11-14m in Sydney.

The opera company has again broken with tradition by casting Kanan Breen in the part of Emilio. While Breen is a capable comprimario singer he struggles with Handel’s florid vocal lines and has trouble rising to the dramatic heights needed for a ferocious military adversary of the queen of Naples. That he was given a childish cellophane and elastic mask and a flash camera on stage does not deserve further comment.

Emma Matthews sang and acted flawlessly yet she was unsupported by her numerous suitors. Christopher Field as the obligatory Handel counter-tenor did not produce a beautiful sound: his feeble and cloying character is supposed to be dreary … so was his singing. Catherine Carby sang more than competently in her major aria in Act one … the act lasted an hour and had no particular musical or dramatic high points. Richard Alexander always sings well but it was asking too much for him to be the only true male operatic voice of the night. An opera without a baritone? Really? And no operatic tenor. And no chorus. And no ‘hit tune’. Handel did make it difficult and the only means to success would have been superlative showcase singing (it was not to be).

The conductor Christian Curnyn seemed to know what he was doing yet he had a strange habit of looking around to the left and into the auditorium as if there were some additional instruments or singers in the galleries. I spoke to two good friends the following day to learn that much of the audience left before the end. Poor Mr Breen was required to sing some enormously complex aria in Act 3 lying on his back with his legs in the air while the rest of the crew also struggled with the difficulties Handel’s vocal lines. Even some of the guests of honour departed early, or so I was told. What an embarrassment for a company which used to boast world-class opera! A DVD of the old Sydney Alcina has surfaced recently showing just one of these high points in stark contrast to the mish-mash presented today.

I was vexed to have missed Mahler’s seventh and Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in the next hall. There was nothing to entice me back for Acts 2 or 3 of the opera and I went to my favourite Thai in Macleay Street for their excellent prawns and ‘spicy drunken noodles with beef’. As an added bonus at the restaurant I ran into some friends who commiserated. Host Kham of Arun Thai brought us a first rate Bordeaux white wine which was, however, just too flinty for me … yet the others thought it was very fine drinking. Dessert of home-made coconut ice cream and rock melon with fresh mint was delicious. All highly recommended and a cure for a rotten night at the opera.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Arun Thai Ph: 9326 9135 Address: 28 Macleay St, Potts Point, 2011 (opp Ikon Building). Worth a visit.