Sunday 10 September 2023

Extravagantly theatrical: Handel's Flavio revived by Bayreuth Baroque in the splendour of the 18th-century theatre

Handel: Flavio - Rémy Brès-Feuillet, Yuriy Mynenko - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)
Handel: Flavio - Rémy Brès-Feuillet (in bath), Yuriy Mynenko - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)

Handel: Flavio; Julia Lezhneva, Max Emanuel Cencic, Monika Jägerová,  Yuriy Mynenko, Rémy Brès Feuillet, director: Max Emanuel Cencic, Concerto Köln, conductor Benjamin Bayl; Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival at the Margravial Opera House, Bayreuth
Reviewed 9 September 2023

An undeserved Handel rarity in a lavish production highlighting the historical background and managing to combine comic and serious

Having revived a real rarity in Vinci's Alessandro nell'Indie in 2022 [see my review], the 2023 Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival opened with, if not a rarity, a work from the Handelian fringes. Handel wrote Flavio for the end of the 1722/23 season, a season that had included the premiere of Handel's Ottone and the sensational London debut of soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. Flavio, which starred Cuzzoni alongside castrato Senesino, received eight performances, and was revived by Handel in 1732. Then it was never performed until 1967 in Göttingen, since when there have been occasional revivals including the Irish Opera Theatre Company in the 1990s and English Touring Opera in 2009 (both productions directed by James Conway).

We caught the second performance, on Saturday 9 September 2023, of Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival's production of Handel's Flavio at the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth directed Max Emanuel Cencic and conducted by Benjamin Bayl with Concerto Köln in the pit. Sets were by Helmut Stürmer with costumes by Corina Grämosteanu and lighting by Romain De Lagarde. Max Emanuel Cencic took the Senesino role of Guido with Julia Lezhneva in the Cuzzoni role of Emilia. Yuriy Mynenko was Vitige, Monika Jägerová was Teodata, Rémy Brès Feuillet was Flavio with Sreten Manojlovic and Fabio Trümpy as Lotario and Ugone.

Handel: Flavio - Julia Lezhneva, Max Emanuel Cencic - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Falk von Traubenberg)
Handel: Flavio - Julia Lezhneva, Max Emanuel Cencic - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Falk von Traubenberg)

Handel's taste in opera was always more varied than that of his patrons and he seems to have had a fondness for that Venetian-style opera mixing comedy and tragedy. During his period at the Royal Academy of Music in the 1720s he tried and failed to persuade his backers to produce Partenope (which he would finally do when he became his own master). His librettist, Nicola Haym seems to have played cello in performances of Flavio in Rome in the 1690s and this may be the origin of Handel's idea to stage it. Flavio is something of a surprise alongside the heroic tragedies of the 1720s. Mixing comedy, pathos and sentimentality with satire and real tragedy, it is a pacey, short piece that pokes fun at opera seria itself.

This causes problems for modern directors, how to poke fun at an art form that modern audiences have difficulty taking seriously at the best of times.  Max Emanuel Cencic's solution was to set the opera within the context of a court formality so fixed as to be almost comic. Cencic is also interested in the real life parallels, that Handel might have been conscious of the libretto poking fun at absolutism, over-mighty ministers and the like. So, we were in the late 17th century (judging by the women's dress) at a court inspired by that of King Louix XIV perhaps (King Charles II also fitted the visuals, except for the presence of Roman Catholic nuns and clerics). The alarming thing was that much of Cencic's elaborate court ritual was based in reality, though stretched for comic effect; I don't think that the young King Louis XIV's courtiers ever watched him actually fulfilling his conjugal duties with his Queen.

The cast of Flavio was vastly expanded with actors, providing the Queen, wives for Ugone and Lotario, a further minister and his wife, a duenna for Teodata, two court ladies of dubious virtue, sundry clerics and more plus five pages. Most scenes were set against court life. Only occasionally, such as for the crucial scenes between Cencic's Guido and Julia Lezhneva's Emilia at the end of Act One and at the beginning of Act Three, were the characters actually alone for their solos. Though this production was an accurate reflection of court life, it made for a busy and distracting staging.

Handel: Flavio - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Falk von Traubenberg)
Handel: Flavio - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Falk von Traubenberg)

There was one extra layer to the performance. Helmut Stürmer's set consisted of a screen of six panels capable of being manipulated and turned through 180 degrees (red one side, green the other). For each scene change the five pages and technical crew (often visible) manipulated the setting, dressed it and undressed it, including bringing on and off a large four-poster bed and a billiard table. These scene changes were done to music (largely by Handel but not exclusively) and often conducted by a Lully-like figure complete with staff that he stamped. The famous slap, which is the basis for the plot, here happened on-stage at a card game that featured one of the court ladies (Filippa Kaye) singing Rameau deliberately badly. 

As there were around four to six scene changes per act, this made for a very different change of pace. The first act came in at well over an hour and the running time was four hours including two intervals (I understand that the relatively late, 7.30pm start was out of the festival's hands). The use of the pages during the scene changes was a deliberate theatrical device with links right back to Nicholas Hytner's ground-breaking post-modernist Ariodante for English National Opera. Recitative in Flavio is cut to the bone to suit 18th-century English taste and Cencic' additions provided welcome additional background, albeit at the expense of overall pace.

Guido and Emilia were treated entirely seriously as befits Handel's music for them. Vitige and Teodata were more equivocal, semi-seria characters, whilst Ugone and Lotario were more satirical, their reactions completely over the top. Flavio was a completely comic character, a young man governed by his loins. Cencic treatment was positively bawdy with Eirini Petraki as his Queen providing a perfect 'straight man' along with the Queen's personal dwarf, Mick Morris Mehnert, with whom she seemed to have a sexual liaison.

Handel: Flavio - Monika Jägerová, Fabio Trümpy - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)
Handel: Flavio - Monika Jägerová, Fabio Trümpy - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)

Cencic was on superb form as Guido, going from joy at his nuptials to anger for his father to bitter confusion as he manages to kill his beloved's father. Cencic was powerfully expressive indeed in Guido's serious arias, singing with great style and never over-doing the ornament. Julia Lezhneva's Emilia moved from nuptial joy to puzzlement at Guido's behaviour to anger to distress and bitterness. Lezhneva brought a touching pathetic element to her performance whilst having a touch of steel as well. In many ways it was an ideal performance, showing Emilia's myriad moods. But there was a sense of Lezhneva demonstrating that less is more by doing the complete opposite. In her first aria, Emilia's joy knew no bonds, demonstrated via over-elaborate ornamentation in the Da Capo and an over-extended cadenza. Unfortunately this happened in every one of Emilia's (six?) arias, and by her final aria the joke (if that is what it was) wore thin and any expressive purpose to the over-extended cadenza lost its power. This is a shame as there was a fine performance lurking underneath.

 Yuriy Mynenko was Vitige and Monika Jägerová was Teodata made a handsome and attractive couple. Yuriy Mynenko, singing a role originally created by a woman, had the lighter, higher voice of the two. At the opening, their relationship was clandestine and the production mined the comic effect of Vitige acting as pander for Flavio in soliciting Teodata. The comedy was mixed with pathos, however, and Jägerová made a wonderfully feisty Teodata whilst Mynenko tore himself into knots of jealousy in an impressive way.

Rémy Brès Feuillet was a comic delight as Flavio. A gifted physical performer, he made the young man's obsession with things sexual into a running joke all the while giving us some stylish Handel singing, and revealing a remarkable amount of flesh. Sreten Manojlovic and Fabio Trümpy as Lotario and Ugone, the two elder statesmen, were both in fine form. Both men got the chance to show fine dramatic range, here exaggerated for comic effect, and Sreten Manojlovic's rage aria was a thing of comic and musical delights.

Handel: Flavio - Rémy Brès-Feuillet, Yuriy Mynenko - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)
Handel: Flavio - Rémy Brès-Feuillet, Yuriy Mynenko - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)

I last saw Concerto Köln in June at the Dresden Music Festival as one of the two orchestras contributing to the performance of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold [see my review]. Here, they were at the opposite end of the spectrum with Handel's rather discreet score for Flavio (largely strings and continuo with oboes). The score entirely lacked the showier elements, but the inclusion of the extra music gave  Concerto Köln a chance to show their mettle. Benjamin Bayl drew fine performances from cast and singer, keeping speeds perky but never seeming to drive things, and deftly making all the extra music seem part of the opera.

With its large, extra cast and sense of theatrical excess this was closer to a theatrical event than Handel's Flavio. But thankfully it was anchored by some fine performances and the gut-wrenching moment, when Cencic's Guido offered his sword to Lezhneva's Emiliar and told her to kill him, remained the remarkable centre of the work.

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