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Tragic scenes

Handel's 'Flavio' in London,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Not all of Handel's operas are unremittingly serious. In his later period he wrote operas such as Partenope which, if not quite comic, view opera seria with amused irony. He also showed a fondness for basing operas on 17th century Venetian librettos, typified by their mixture of tragedy and comedy; Handel's Serse with the comic servant Elvino is a prime example of this. Even during the earlier Royal Academy period, when his output was typified by high seriousness, Handel slipped in the occasional opera of a rather more mixed genre. Flavio was premiered in 1723 and was followed by Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano; two of his most serious opera seria.

On Wednesday 6 July 2005 Flavio was given a single performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, by the Early Opera Company under musical director Christian Curnyn in a staging by Netia Jones. They are going on to give the opera at the Lichfield Festival on 7 July and at the Iford Festival.

Flavio notably mixes genres; it is based on a lively libretto written in Venice in 1682 which was set by Alessandro Scarlatti and Luigi Mancia. The libretto was adapted for Handel by Nicola Haym, an Italian jobbing writer who did much such work for him. Haym cut out the comic servants, but importantly, kept the rather ironic tone of the libretto. Handel takes his cue from the libretto and, though there are arias which strike a note of high tragedy, the prevailing idiom is one of light, dance based rhythms and relatively short arias.

The plot is a relatively straightforward, involving two contrasting couples. Teodata (Kim-Marie Woodhouse) and Vitige (Catherine King) are in love and the opera opens with them having an illicit liaison. But Teodata catches the eye of the King, Flavio (Andrew Radley), and he spends much of the opera pursuing her. Teodata is deliciously sexy (what Winton Dean describes as one of Handel's sex-kitten roles) and revels in the King's attention causing Vitige much jealousy. Woodhouse relished these aspects of the role; unusually Teodata is written for a contralto and Woodhouse's delightful teasing manner carried over into her voice, there was no danger of this sex kitten being matronly. As Vitige, King was slow to start; the part seemed to lie awkwardly for her, but she developed throughout the evening and her account of Vitige's jealousy aria. Sirti, scoglio, tempeste was particularly fine.

Teodata is the daughter of Flavio's counsellor, Ugone. Ugone's son Guido (Stephen Wallace) is betrothed to Emilia (Claire Booth), daughter of another of Flavio's counsellors, Lotario. Their betrothal is interrupted by an argument between their fathers and Guido has to defend the family honour in a duel, killing Lotario. Here again, though the music for Emilia and Guido is entirely serious, Handel and Haym give the opera seria plot an ironic twist; the cause of the duel is nothing more serious than a slap on the cheek. Guido was written for Senesino, who was best in folorn lover roles. Wallace has an attractive, soft-grained voice and relished the more drooping aspects of the role, where he had to be more heroic his voice just lacked the requisite edge but he was impressive nonetheless.

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Copyright © 8 July 2005 Robert Hugill, London UK


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