Melbourne’s International Festival got away to a rocky start with the local critics underwhelmed, and the Age - the event’s “Official Newspaper” - confusing the name of artistic director, Jonathan Mills, with that of British opera director, Jonathan Miller.

At the opening night concert, American soprano Laura Aikin came as close to the spirit of the Brecht-Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins as Debbie Reynolds ever got to its original performer, Lotte Lenya. The contrast with Ute Lemper, here for the Olympics Arts, could not have been more painful.

Nor did the Melbourne Symphony under Markus Stenz know what it was about, sounding more palm courtly than cabaret. After interval, it gave a boisterous rendition of John Adams’s Harmonium, a purely instrumental illustration of his Romanticising of Minimalism.

The music-theatre highlight promised to be a world premiere from Chamber Made Opera, Gauguin, a synthetic life, inspired by the French artist who, a century ago, pictured himself as a savage seeking the meaning of life in Polynesia.

Some realisations are so dumb that only groups could produce them. Hence, all the principals in Gauguin must share responsibility for the want of synergy between words, music, staging and action. They should have pondered the significance of the term that Gauguin applied to his style of painting – synthetisme, and his stress on the musicality of colours.

Above all, they needed to absorb Gauguin’s precept that art must proceed from the imagination, not from snapshots of nature, which, in this case, meant from a time-line of Gauguin’s career. I won’t say “life”, because his mummification proved more pervasive than the visual metaphor in an opening scene. The synthetic in the sub-title is closer to its current sense of fake than to its earlier meaning of integration.

Chamber Made eschewed narrative plotting with antagonistic characters to end up with declamatory didacticism, burdened with detritus from theatre-in-education, such as blackboard lessons.

Michael Smetanin’s score wailed and thumped like Lloyd Webber on speed, but still with only one and a half tunes. Volume is no substitute for dynamics. In a display of bad faith Orientalism, the rhythms were those of the belly dance more often than they swayed to the hula-hula.

The biggest surprise came at the end when seventeen players, conducted by Ronald Peelman, appeared to share the trickle of applause. Until then, the score sounded as if taped.

The libretto by Alison Croggon may contain more substance and poetry than was audible but her writing contributed little to the characterisation or to the scene painting. How much livelier the show would have been had Gauguin himself supplied the words from his throve of ironies, penetrating aesthetics, aphorisms on sex and gender, and denunciations of church, state and commerce.

In the title role, Lyndon Terracini demonstrated his vocal force though its qualities were impossible to determine beneath the miking and the clatter. Also missing were the physical and dramatic powers that made his previous performances memorable. Why was he dressed for a Danish winter in the tropics?

The six other singers were harder to judge individually, and not only because we heard less of them, but because the programme did not specify who sang which parts. The tenor who did van Gogh came through the mechanics as a talent for whom to compose.

Director Douglas Horton boasts of the high-tech visuals in his productions. On this occasion, this promise meant the spectacle of computers painting by numbers, which was indeed a pleasure the first time. Its repetition was less tiresome than the carrying of props on and off stage, a procedure which occupied half the running time.

Typical of Horton’s smart ideas in search of a purpose was the covering of the stage, and everyone on it, with clear plastic. The expectation was for a flood of primary coloured paints but Horton wanted only a few spots of emerald over Gauguin. That anti-climax helped me to understand a remark of Cezzane’s, which Gauguin often quoted: “a kilo of green is greener than half a kilo”.

As I exited into the drizzle, memories of that evening’s twilight concert of early twentieth-century art songs, from pianist Marshall McGuire and soprano Jane Edwards, welled up the power that music has to point up a text. Waiting for the tram, I began to look forward to a forthcoming pastiche of Gilbert and Sullivan selections for that achievement. By contrast, Smetanin and Croggin collided more often than they connected.

Elsewhere in town, five male and one female administrators were preparing to discuss “Can the Arts Reach Beyond the Converted?” Is disbelief the explanation for limited audiences, or is the answer closer to that forum’s $85 registration fee?