George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi - Opera in Three Acts (1723) HWV 16 [146:23]
Flavio - Tim Mead (counter-tenor); Guido - Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor); Emilia - Rosemary Joshua (soprano); Teodata - Hilary Summers (contralto); Vitige - Renata Pokupić (mezzo); Ugone - Thomas Walker (tenor); Lotario - Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
Early Opera Company/Christian Curnyn
rec. All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London, 8-12 February 2010
Italian text and English translation included
CHANDOS CHAN 0773(2) [77:03 + 69:20]
Flavio was one of the operas Handel wrote for the Royal Academy of Music’s company at the King’s Theatre on the Haymarket. It has a character all of its own, very different from that of “Giulio Cesare” which followed it in 1724. Although the plot similarly concerns power and sex, these subjects are treated in a wholly different manner. Some commentators have seen it as almost a comedy. Certainly there are moments that might bring a smile to the face of the audience. These include two successive revenge arias for outraged fathers at the start of the second Act. Also one of the main plot devices relates to who is to have the difficult job of Governor of Britain. There is little else that might be seen as comic to anyone other than many modern opera producers.
The plot is too complex to be set out in full, but in essence it concerns the rivalry of two elderly counsellors to the King of Lombardy. It is set in a legendary time when Lombardy ruled Britain. Their children and other courtiers are linked in various ways and the plot is set in motion by the King’s roving eye. The libretto was adapted by Nicola Haym from one by the Venetian Matteo Noris from 1682. Having heard and greatly enjoyed this recording I very much regret not having seen the version recently toured by English Touring Opera as part of their Handel opera series.
Nonetheless although it does not appear to derive from stage performances, the most distinctive aspect of this recording is its strongly theatrical feel. The recitatives in particular are paced and sung with real dramatic flair, and although my limited Italian meant that I needed to follow the text in the booklet there was at all times a feeling of real dramatic interaction. This is no mere concert performance and I felt as though I was watching a live event. Whilst always staying within the appropriate limits of period style (no verismo shouting here) all of the cast project a distinct set of characters with real feelings. The dramatic context is also projected in the arias - the only ensembles are duets at the start and end and a final chorus for all the surviving characters. All of the roles are well taken and it would be invidious to mention them individually, although the three female singers are particularly good, especially Renata Pokupić as a courtier in love with the woman with whom the King has himself fallen in love. All of the singers reserve decorations for the da capos, leaving the first time round as the composer wrote them. This is much to be preferred to the alternatives of either omitting decorations altogether, which is dull, or decorating both times, in which case the listener is never able to distinguish which is by the composer and which by the singer. The decorations are well considered and for the most part the singers manage to avoid making them sound too obviously rehearsed. The orchestra, on period instruments, play with great panache under Christian Curnyn without indulging in the sort of exaggeration which some recent recordings of Handel operas seem to find necessary. The recording is clear if somewhat unatmospheric.
In the end it is the work itself that most impressed me. I had not heard it before, but I was wholly transfixed by it. Perhaps its relative brevity, and that of many of the arias, attracted me, together with a more interesting plot than most (albeit equally complex). Each of the three Acts has a distinct character, starting with a relatively light First Act, with many arias in triple time, but ending in a Third Act where the characters’ real feelings and difficulties are apparent. The very beautiful and affecting final aria for Guido is in the unusual key of B flat minor. There are composers who seem to gravitate towards remote keys when particularly touched by a situation - Sullivan is a prime example, but I had never thought of Handel in that way - I will look out for it in future. In a really committed performance like this Flavio stands out as one of Handel’s best operas. It should be in the collection of anyone who wants to experience the full range of his operatic creations. Collectors of recordings of his operas will obviously want this set, but it would be an ideal introduction to the riches of these works for anyone previously unconvinced of their merits.
In a really committed performance like this Flavio stands out as one of Handel’s best operas.