Handel’s Flavio

Flavio – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym adapted from Matteo Noris’s “Il Flavio Cuniberto”

Emilia – Karina Gauvin
Guido – Robin Blaze
Vitige – Maite Beaumont
Teodata – Renata Pokupić
Flavio – Iestyn Davies
Ugone – James Gilchrist
Lotario – James Rutherford

Academy of Ancient Music
Christopher Hogwood

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 17 April, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

George Frederic Handel. Portrait by Balthasar DennerThe Handel scholar Winton Dean wrote that Handel’s 1723 opera “Flavio” treats with sly amusement mankind’s follies, absurdities and convulsive passions, calling it “an antiheroic comedy with tragic undertones”. It does not turn up often, so this enjoyable concert performance was welcome.

Under Christopher Hogwood, the Academy of Ancient Music, consisting of about 30 players, provided a stylish musical basis. There are Handel operas with more colourful instrumentation. In “Flavio” the strings have virtually a monopoly, creating here a winning sound.

The tenor and bass soloists have least to sing. (Handel reversed the vocal categories for his one revival, in 1732.) Someone probably knows why James Gilchrist assumed a camp manner as Ugone, elderly father of Guido and Teodata, but I don’t. Fortunately, it did not affect his singing, and he tossed off the fioriture of ‘Fato tiranno e crudo’ with a dexterity that he is not called on to display when he performs English songs. Ugone is offered the position of governor of Britain, to the envy and displeasure of Lotario, whose vengeance aria ‘Se a te vissi fedele’ was ragingly delivered by James Rutherford.

The respective offspring of these two, Emilia and Guido, have kept their love secret. Alongside this, King Flavio tries to seduce Teodata and asks his courtier Vitige to help. Unknown to Flavio, Vitige and Theodora are lovers too. As this is a Handel opera, all ends well, except that Lotario is killed by Guido.

Countertenor Robin Blaze. Photograph: Keith Saunders Two countertenors were on duty, contrasting in sound. Iestyn Davies produced the larger voice, with some tonal bite and a more dramatic, bolder colouring, whereas Robin Blaze, operating with sweet and smooth tones on a flowing line, brought a more concentrated tone. One would not think that Blaze sang the role of Lotario’s killer if one did not know that Guido accepted Lotario’s challenge on behalf of his father, who was too old for swordplay. Both Blaze and Davies surmounted Handel’s long phrases with apparent ease.

The Spanish mezzo Maite Beaumont, in the male role of Vitige, was impressive. Her sound had a brightness (not a shrillness) that enabled her voice to ring out freely and securely. She certainly had the necessary agility for the ornate divisions. Like the countertenors, she and fellow mezzo Renata Pokupić had markedly different timbres. Pokupić’s was softer and smaller. I felt that bottom notes were somewhat backward, not sufficiently projected, but her vocal quality was pleasing. Beaumont measured up to the compliments written about her.

The sole soprano (mezzos have a better deal in Handel’s operas than almost anywhere else) was Karina Gauvin, replacing the originally announced Sandrine Piau, who withdrew at a later date than did Sara Mingardo, the planned Flavio. Gauvin gave a very fine performance. Flexible in fast passages, she sang the long cantilena of Emilla’s closing aria in Act Two, ‘Mà chi punir desio’, exquisitely, as she did similar arias elsewhere, tracing the melody with elegance. Her final duet with Blaze was utterly delectable.

Da capo sections received some variation, but I should have liked more elaborate adornments occasionally. That, however, is a small point as set against a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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