Friday, 18 April 2008

Review of Flavio at the Barbican

Handel seems to have had a fondness for librettos which originated in Venice in the late 17th, century. These librettos were often re-used and re-edited, so his knowledge of a 17th century libretto would have been based on a more recent outing. The typical Venetian format, which was going out of fashion by Handel's youth, mixed comic and serious scenes (think Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Handel's collaborators usually excised most of the comic characters, but sometimes some survived along with something else, a certain wryness, a slightly lighter, sideways attitude to opera and the plot. The results are not really comedies, Handel does not seem to have done out and out comedy, but in Flavio, Partenope and Serse the plots are just as convoluted as in, say, Radamisto but Handel's music lightens a little and allows us to smile at the situations rather than frown.

Flavio has had some success in London in recent years, having been performed here by both Christian Curnyn's Early Opera Company and the Opera Theatre Company (at the Covent Garden Festival). I think that directors must be attracted to the rather sarcastic way that Handel and his librettist (the original libretto by Matteo Noris was adapted by Nicola Haym) treat the King Flavio and his two senior courtiers, Ugone and Lotario. These latter two get involved in a ridiculous argument which would be completely laughable except that it involves their children in some pretty serious business - a duel and a cancelled marriage contract.

For their concert performance at the Barbican on Thursday, the Academy of Ancient Music had assembled a pretty strong cast. Iestyn Davies was King Flavio, James Gilchrist and James Rutherford were Ugone and Lotario, Robin Blaze was Ugone's son Guido, Karina Gauvin was Guido beloved Emilia, daughter of Lotario, Renata Pokupic was Teodata, Ugone's daughter in love with Vitige, Maite Beaumont.

Handel wrote the opera for a strong cast, Senesino was Guido, Francesca Cuzzoni was Emilia, Marherita Durastanti was Vitige and Anastasia Robinson was Teodata. This casting means that the leading couple, Guido and Emilia, are entirely serious (Senesino did NOT do comedy) and their troubles are musically very dramatically presented. (Guido kills Emilia's father and this rather messes up their betrothal, but all comes out happily in the end). Vitige and Teodata are equally seriously in love, but Teodata catches the eye of King Flavio and Teodata flirts with him, or pretends to, causing Vitige some pretty serious jealousy.

Add to this, the two comic characters, Lotario and Ugone each get a pretty serious, if over the top, aria and you have a really mix of styles.

The first act was relatively low key, amusing in the court scenes and pleasantly amorous in Guido and Emilia's. Handel seems to have found form in Emilia's arias and Karin Gauvin was superbly on form, giving a strong performance. But in Act 1, Guido is simply a man in love and Handel does not seem to have found this inspiring, his arias for Senesino are attractive but do not really hit hard. Robin Blaze did his best and sang at his most beauteous. Iestyn Davies had a great deal of fun as Flavio, being unreasonably imperious, Gilchrist and Rutherford managed to mix wry comedy with some pretty good singing. Maite Beaumont was entirely convincing as the love-lorn Vitige and Renata Pokupic simpered beautifully as Teodata. (Anastasia Robinson did not have the strongest of voices but she did have a very attractive manner; she went on to marry one of the aristocracy).

But in act 2, things get more serious. Guido and Emilia must go through trials and both Blaze and Gauvin responded superbly, both producing stunning held lines and dazzling coloratura by turns. Though this was a concert performance, sung from the score, the cast moved around, sang to each other and reacted, there was even a little comic business. The result was to engage our emotions and attentions even more so that both Blaze and Gauvin created characters with whom we emphasised. We didn't just admire their singing, we were really rooting for their characters.

Similarly Beaumont, with her beautifully plangent, laser sharp voice was superb as Vitige is required to woo Teodata for his master. Pokupic seems to have a nice line in wry comedy, she created a superb flirty character in Teodata, by the end of the opera she had you eating out of her hand, even though you were not sure whether Teodata was flirting in earnest or not. Pokupic's Teodata was well sung, and would be a real handful to any man.

The singers we well supported by the Academy of Ancient Music under Hogwood's excellent direction. The orchestration is relatively discreet, just flute, oboes and bassoons added to the strings, but Handel is never less than interesting and the Academy responded well.

This was an involving and engrossing evening, combining superb singing with some real drama. So engrossing was it that the decision to omit the 2nd interval (a bad habit of the Barbican's) went almost unnoticed.(Given that the opera finished by 10pm I fail to see why we could not have had our 2nd interval).

Next year the Academy will be doing Arianna in Creta, I can't wait

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