Emma Matthews in Partenope | Opera Theatre, Sydney

George Frideric Handel was a serious man and muso, notwithstanding the most ridiculous wig. But he let his absurd hair down even more than usual with the playful Partenope, which hardly rates as one of the most famous operas of all time, but is definitely one of the most fun.

And Opera Australia’s co-production with the English National Opera, directed by Christopher Alden, exploits its innate quirkiness to the hilt. It’s so thoroughly modern (albeit set in the 30s), it’s hard to believe it was first performed at the King’s Theatre, London, on February 24, 1730.

Smallpox, foxes, sheep and cattle, among other feral species, got here a lot sooner than Handel’s baroque frivolity. But we can hardly complain. I mean, it’s only been, what, 281 years? Anyway, thankyou OA for doing our funny bones this favour.

Of course, there’s nothing much funny about the score, which typifies both Handel and the baroque era more generally. The pleasing meter and squareness; the discipline and predictability make one come over all relaxed and comfortable.

The lauded Emma Matthews is Partenope; a queen no less, of Napoli. She’s the Paris Hilton of her day, vetting would-be lovers with guile and wile. (Well, okay, perhaps Paris doesn’t have guile or wile; just handbags, probably.) Her versatility and agility, vocally and theatrically, is fast becoming the stuff of living legend. Not to mention her generous infusion of personality; which others, more determined to keep opera to themselves, might describe in terms such as coloratura, or tessitura. Well yes, ok, i’ve been guilty of such myself, here and there. For shame! Of course, if you must, go right ahead, be Italian! Yet this opera is in English, with surtitles in same, so maybe we could drop the show-offy, ‘no, really, I’m an expert!’ taxonomy, eh?

But I digress, bitterly.

Visually, the production has been inspired by the high-camp drama, style, sophistication and dadaism of Man Ray, and this reference lives and breathes through the entire opera, with Kanen Breen, as Emilio, sporting a camera almost wherever he goes. The curtain is even prefaced by his opportunistic snapping. It’s a little pretentious, but cute.

Speaking of Breen, Matthews may be the inevitable favourite, but his athletic antics here beggar belief: they even have him singing, as well as ever, while bent over in improbably asanas. He’s an almost Chaplinesque scream. And speaking of Ray, Andrew Lieberman’s starkly elegant, less-is-more design, complemented by the shadings of Jon Morrell’s costumes, are works of art, and craft, in themselves.

Jacqueline Dark’s is Rosmira who, in the familiar and commonplace manner of Shakespearean cross-dressing, is also Eurimene; a cunning disguise the former deploys to infiltrate Partenope’s coterie of lovers, in order to win hers back. Her voice seemed to take some time to adapt and warm-up, but once it had, she was almost convincing, as a man. Catherine Carby had the dubious honour of manning-up, too; as Arsace, another of Partenope’s ardent admirers.

Counter-tenor Christopher Field was the very quintessence of timidity, as the patient Armindo, while Richard Alexander resonated comically, as well as musically, as the unashamedly effete sensualist, Ormonte.

The ever-fabulous Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, for mine, outdid themselves once again, under the sympathetic baton of Christian Curnyn. Both seemed at one and there were palpable smiles from the pit. It’s no small thing to imbue Handel with the requisite restraint and still manage to eke out energy and resplendent colour.

And where would we be without the libretto? Originally penned in 1699, by Silvio Stampiglia, its verve, wit and characterisations prove themselves as timeless. Alden and cast, interpolating their own innovations and ideas, have renovated, if not reinvented it. Partenope has been given a whole new lease on life. Long may she reign.

Curtain Call rating: A+

The details: Partenope plays four more performances at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Tickets on the OA website.

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