Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival 2023 – Händel’s Flavio

Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi  – Dramma per musica in three Acts to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym [sung in Italian, with German and English surtitles]

Julia Lezhneva – Emilia
Max Emanuel Cenčić – Guido
Yuriy Mynenko – Vitige
Monika Jägerová – Teodata
Rémy Brès-Feuillet – Flavio
Sreten Manojlović – Lotario
Fabio Trümpy – Ugone

Concerto Köln
Benjamin Bayl

Max Emanuel Cenčić – Director
Helmut Stürmer – Set
Corina Gramosteanu – Costumes
Romain De Lagarde – Lighting

Reviewed by: Andreas Bücker

Reviewed: 13 September, 2023
Venue: Margravial Opera House, Bayreuth

It may still come as a surprise to some, but musically ‘Bayreuth’ does not necessarily equal ‘Wagner’. Since 2020 the Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival – starting a few days after the last Wagnerians have left the picturesque Franconian city – puts on stage rarely performed baroque operas. And what a stage it is: Recognised as a World Heritage Site with its magnificent Baroque interior remaining virtually unchanged since its opening in 1748, the Margravial Opera House (not to be confused with Wagner’s own Festspielhaus) is a treasure to behold and one of the very few theatres surviving from that period.

Countertenor and festival director Max Emanuel Cenčić here directed Georg Friedrich Händel’s “Flavio – Re de’ Longobardi”, first performed in 1723 and almost forgotten since. With Flavio, Händel and his librettist Nicola Francesco Haym deliberately moved away from the typical heroic set-up of an opera seria, moving towards a more ironic and satirical take on the genre and, implicitly, an 18th century society.

The plot itself is already curious enough: Guido would like to marry Emilia, but their two fathers Lothario and Ugone, senior courtiers both, fight over the Governorship of Britain, when an insult by Lothario results in Guido killing his father-in-law to be. How will he be forgiven by his beloved? Adding to that, the king Flavio lusts after Guido’s sister Teodata, though she secretly loves his adjutant Vitige who has the unenviable task of enabling the king to have his way with her. 

The twists and turns of how the story unfolds could compete comfortably with those of your average soap opera, and this is pretty much the approach Cenčić, who has also cast himself in the role of Guido, takes. The stage set is the interior of an 18th century palace, which is cleverly transformed for each scene, and is populated by a panopticon of courtiers with Flavio as an absolute monarch Louis XIV-style at its helm. Here, literally, anything goes; couples make love at any opportunity (including in the presence of a sleeping mother superior), fathers spank their daughters, aristocrats are publicly ridiculed, cardinals gamble, and even the act between king and queen of begetting an heir is performed in front of everyone’s eyes. Oh yes, and of course the king needs visual stimulation in the shape of bare-breasted courtesans to get it going with his wife. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg with many more subtle (and not so subtle) ideas to be found in this production. Though some may look a tad crude to more traditionally inclined Handelians, make no mistake: Cenčić has listened very carefully to Händel’s masterfully constructed score, and its delicate yet rhythmically pronounced musical texture fully supports his interpretation. Altogether this makes for a thoroughly exhilarating and at times hilarious performance, giving space to the more intricate moments when needed.

The stellar cast helps realise Cenčić’s satirical approach. Rémy Brès-Feuillet’s Flavio is a cheeky devil, whose main interest is in making love to any woman (except his own wife). With his lyrical and beautifully velvety voice he gives an outstanding performance, even showcasing his versatility when whistling the ‘da capo’ part of his second aria sitting in the royal bathtub.

Julia Lezhneva’s Emilia is nothing short of a triumph, moving between breathtaking coloraturas and a deeply touching lyrical espressivo with supreme ease. Cenčić is her perfect counterpart and with full command over his exceptional voice portrays a Guido who subtly oscillates between self-doubt and over-confidence.

Monika Jägerova as a darkly timbred Teodata and Yuriy Mynenko as a radiant Vitige are perfect as a second more well-grounded couple, while Fabio Trümpy and Sreten Manojlović make the constant bickering between the two fathers Ugone and Lothario fun to listen to and watch.

Sublime music making comes from Concerto Köln, orchestra in residence at the festival and superbly led by Benjamin Bayl, which brings an exuberance and edginess to the score that results in over four hours of pure pleasure.

After a production like the Bayreuth Flavio, this opera will hopefully never be forgotten again.

Performances until September 17

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content