Handel’s Flavio – Early Opera Company [Chandos]

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Flavio, Re de’Longobardi – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Nicola Haym after Il Flavio Cuniberto by Matteo Noris [Performing edition prepared by Peter Jones; sung in Italian]

Flavio – Tim Mead
Guido – Iestyn Davies
Emilia – Rosemary Joshua
Teodata – Hilary Summers
Vitige – Renata Pokupić
Ugone – Thomas Walker
Lotario – Andrew Foster-Williams

Early Opera Company
Christian Curnyn

Recorded 8-12 February 2010 in All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: December 2010
CHAN 0773 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 26 minutes



“Flavio” is far from being in the first division of Handel’s operas. It is something of a hybrid, its tragic central narrative intermingled with humour, the plausibility of some of the characters compromised by the cartoon nature of some of the depiction. Handel’s librettist Nicola Haym also conflated an incident in Lombardic mythology, in which king Flavio embarks on a rather grubby affair with the daughter of one of his courtiers, with the dilemma familiar from Corneille’s “Le Cid”, in which a character has to kill the father of his beloved.Christian Curnyn has chosen to record the original 1723 edition of the score, given then by a strong cast including Cuzzoni and Durastanti and the castrato known as Senesino. The vocal ranges of Ugone and Lotario were reversed when Handel revived the work in 1732. This opera does not belong to those of Handel’s compositions which stand out in bright colours, attracting attention by their scale, daring or profundity. Either the creative fires were burning low or he was deliberately experimenting with a subtler, more fastidious approach.

Curnyn, who favours the latter explanation, underplays the score almost throughout. The temperature of the playing and singing is never high and remains within quite narrow limits. Arguably this is being faithful to Handel’s intentions. The composer has deliberately shunned the heroic in vocal utterance and based his orchestration largely around the basic elements of strings and continuo. Of the twenty-three solo pieces the scoring of only seven has a separate part for oboes and a mere two include parts for flute, so this is certainly not an opera which exploits the expressive sound of woodwinds, let alone features trumpets or drums at any stage. Many of the arias are leisurely. Even the bravura ones are pale by Handelian drama standards. Curnyn avoids spectacular effects from both singers and players with da capo embellishments, which here are on the conservative side. Even when a singer introduces quite a lot of variation, as in Guido’s simile aria ‘L’armellin vita non cura’ the delivery is discreet.

The part of Teodata is allotted to a contralto and that of her lover Vitige to a mezzo. The writing for Teodata is a little masterpiece. In her first aria she presents herself as a woman in whom passion has yet to be aroused, obedient and yet to develop a mind of her own, defined by what she is not (hence the downward semitone interval which appears so often in the melody). In Act Two she reflects almost gleefully on the pretence she is to indulge in, the music light and buoyant but full of short phrases with rests to suggest her hesitation. By her third Act aria she has learnt to play the part with a disarming appearance of sincerity, plunging Vitige into despair. Hilary Summers does not over-point the text; some will probably find her interpretation a bit dull but the richness of her timbre offers much pleasure.

Renata Pokupić’s Vitige confirms the favourable impression created in stage appearances; she sings with admirable musicianship and attracts sympathy with the nobility of her interpretation in the generous sentiments of the Act Two aria ‘Non credo instabile’. She spits out powerfully each of the hazards of being in love in her bravura aria ‘Sirti, scogli, tempeste’ but this is one case where I am frustrated at the relatively unenterprising nature of the da capo. How much more thrilling could this have been.

Emilia is the most interesting character in the opera and has most of the good music in her arias. The casting of Rosemary Joshua is carefully calculated. Hers is an instrument well suited to an interpretation of the only soprano role in the cast. Her voice is light and feathery at the top. She enters as a chaste, obedient daughter, those qualities nicely personified in the fragility of her tone, seconded as it is by the flute. Her Act Two aria of farewell ‘Parto sì; ma non so poi’ deserves to rank among the most moving of Handel arias for sopranos. The voice enters immediately and hauntingly. The ‘B’ section of the melody is more than usually contrasted with its predecessor and travels quite widely from its harmonic centre. Joshua offers a fine legato throughout and her soft resumption at the da capo after an extended silence is something special. She also concludes Act Two in ‘Ma chi punir desio?’ and here Joshua conveys the debilitating effect of her trials in the weakening of her tone down to a pianissimo in her last ten bars. This is resourceful interpretation.

Iestyn Davies has the more distinctive voice of the two countertenors. It has a smooth surface not unlike that of Alfred Deller but with a lower centre of gravity; the tone is viscous yet tangy, while one is always aware of the availability of reserves of power. The fact that he has a larger voice does not handicap him in the faster music, indeed his performance of the rapid semiquavers of ‘Rompo i lacci’ is impeccable. In this instance I must confess that the introduction of the oboe with its long wistful phrases in the largo section is all the more effective for its rarity value. Davies is equally impressive in portraying Guido’s desolation in the funereal ‘Amor, nel mio penar’, in which the character is at his lowest ebb before the denouement.

Thomas Walker conveys Ugone’s indignation at being physically humiliated in the seething allegro of ‘Fato tiranno e crudo’ with lacerating stabs at the repeated A flats (as they are at modern concert pitch). However, there does seem to be a weakness at the heart of the opera. The character of Flavio is negatively presented, feeble and indecisive in political action, emotionally unhinged in his pursuit of Teodata. His solo music is not by any means superior Handel. Tim Mead’s somewhat featureless countertenor is well-suited to the part and hints at a camp element in the character.

The latter spreads from the king to his counsellors, especially Lotario. He salivates at the prospect of being appointed governor of Britain, then becomes apoplectic when the post is awarded to his rival, the senior citizen Ugone, a supposed injustice which he continues to refer to in overblown language thereafter. This hot-head cannot let go, both assaulting Ugone offstage and fighting an irrational (and for him mortal) duel with Ugone’s son. Andrew Foster-Williams, a fine bass-baritone whom I have found particularly effective in works of the baroque, conveys this exaggerated aspect of his character vividly in the recitatives. In the belligerent Act One aria he uses the da capo format to embrace both public utterances of loyalty to the king and his concealed plans for revenge. He begins the repeat softly, in an attempt to conceal his real intentions but finds it impossible to restrain himself. Two flamboyant cadenzas are entirely in character and this is an object lesson in how to make much of a lesser role.

Stock features of comedy appear in the opera: dramatic irony, misunderstanding and concealment. Vitige, Teodata’s secret lover, finds himself forced to deny his attraction to her and even to play Pandarus in pressing Flavio’s suit on her. She then plays her part too convincingly, going along with the pretence of accepting the king’s advances and causing Guido painful confusion. Each of the lovers has recourse to asides to reassure the other that their public behaviour is simulated. At one point Teodata complicates the plot by confession her love to her father Ugone when she does not need to.

There are noticeable mismatches in Handel’s setting of Haym’s text. Emilia’s aria which brings down the curtain on Act One, for example, has the music of elation, brisk in tempo, the vocal line soaring to repeated A flats, the da capo decorated with unrestrained abandon. Yet Emilia is expressing bewilderment at her lover’s contradictory behaviour. There is absolutely no tenderness to match the sentiments of the text in Flavio’s first aria ‘Di quel bel che m’innamora’, while his Act Two aria ‘Chi può mirare’ is another case in point: the king is marvelling at Teodata’s beauty and admitting that he has fallen in love with her but the minor-key setting is too regular, the line low and the voice held down in unison with the strings. Conversely the lightly tripping 6/8 of Vitige’s aria ‘Che bel contento’ conflicts uneasily with his fear of encroaching jealousy. Curnyn in his booklet note attributes a number of the discrepancies between text and music to deliberate irony on the composer’s part.

The forward momentum of the drama is conveyed in the recitatives, which are projected with considerable fire. This latest offering in Chandos’s “Chaconne” series of baroque works with the Early Opera Company adds to the range of Handel operas available on compact disc (the original version of 1723 has never previously been recorded), while the band and its conductor are making a reputation for themselves for their individual sound and approach to the humorous works in the Handel oeuvre.

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