Opera Australia: Partenope

I don’t want to been seen as the always dissenting reviewer – but here I go again! This production garnered glowing reviews and a collection of Helpmann awards for its cast when it was staged in Sydney in 2010. But while this Partenope is a visual and musical feast, I am unconvinced the relocation and significant adaptation of the opera from baroque times to the 1920s adds much significance to the piece.

Partenope. Photo by Jeff  Busby
Partenope. Photo by Jeff Busby

I do, however, agree with the accolades afforded the ensemble cast. Emma Matthews was again perfectly cast as Partenope, with crystal clear coloratura, and a heart touching pianissimo in her laments. Kanen Breen (Emilio) and Victoria Lambourne (Rosmira) both impressed with their physical acting and singing; and, as Armindo, countertenor Christopher Field was simply sublime.

As Arsace, Catherine Carby outshone the rest. Her outstanding musicality, attractive sound through all registers and intelligent, understated acting constantly drew me in and her arias in Act III were pure art.

Also pleasing was the sensitive playing from Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Anthony Legg. Because of poor sight lines, I abandoned my seats in A Reserve and watched Acts II and III from the back row of the stalls. Even from back there, the balance was perfect, and if I was reviewing only from a musical point of view, I would describe the evening as almost perfect.


In the original story Queen Partenope, the founder of Naples, is courted by Prince Arsace of Corinth and Prince Armindo of Rhodes. Partenope is attracted to Arsace, but is unaware that he previously abandoned Rosmira.

Rosmira, in an attempt to win Arsace back, appears at the court disguised as a man called Eurimene. Meanwhile Prince Emilio of Cumae is at war with Partenope and Naples. A battle is fought and when Emilio is captured by Eurimene, Arsace claims the credit. When Rosamira/Eurimene challenges him to a duel in a court of honour, she resigns and reveals her identity when Arsace insists the duel shall be fought topless. Partenope then dumps Arsace and transfers her affections to the less than heroic Armindo.

In this adaptation, first performed at the English National opera in 2008, all references to royalty are done away with, and the “court” is a salon of hedonistic socialites whiling alcohol fuelled days away with “battles” fought on the card table and in the bed – think The Great Gatsby meets Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The character of Emilio is an amalgam of Surrealist photographer Man Ray and some of his most famous photographic subjects; his “war” on Partenope’s court is to reveal their flaws through the constant scrutiny of his camera, culminating in a cubist paste-up of a famous Man Ray portrait.

The premise provided the basis for a striking art deco inspired design by Andrew Lieberman, and a Freudian/Surrealist inspired direction by Brit Christopher Alden, exploring the notion that humans are ruled by the erotic subconscious. But despite the potentially meaty psychological material, and detailed staging that captured an elegant style, the over-stated direction lacked depth and irony.

The humour was drawn with a large brush and the toilet gags, swearing (including – titter! – shit and fuck) and campy cross-dressing weren’t far from Benny Hill land. The opening night audience in Melbourne mostly loved it, but there were a few walk-outs after an auto-erotic display from Emma Matthews that surpassed in its virtuosity Meg Ryan’s famous scene in When Harry Met Sally.

Contributing to the banality was the English translation by Amanda Holden. Opera impresario Owen Swiney stated in 1726 that the Partenope libretto was the worst he had read in his whole life, and I have to agree. At least in Italian, the libretto would have been a succession of beautiful sounds, but there were too many instances where the repetition of not very enlightening text lead to my eyelids drooping.

I found Partenope a successful entertainment, but it left me wanting something that would have made the night seem more than an opportunity to showcase fine performances and design.

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