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An Enthralling Performance

ROBERT HUGILL reviews Handel's 'Flavio'


Handel's Flavio dates from his great period in the 1720s when he produced Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda. Flavio is perhaps not as well known as these, partly because of its genre; Handel mixes the serious and the light-hearted to produce what Winton Dean described as 'an anti-heroic comedy with tragic undertones'. Unfortunately opera companies frequently overdo the comedy and unbalance the piece. James Conway picked the opera to open English Touring Opera's HandelFest, where they are performing five Handel operas (Flavio, Teseo, Tolomeo, Ariodante and Alcina) in London and on tour. We caught Flavio at the Britten Theatre on Thursday 15 October 2009.

Conway and his designer Joanna Parker chose a relatively simple stage setting, just a blue wall, in which doors and windows opened to create changes of mood. This, along with lighting and judicious use of fabrics, provided very effective, flexible settings. Costumes were eighteenth century which provided further variety and richness.

Angelica Voje as Vitige and Carolyn Dobbin as Teodata in English Touring Opera's 'Flavio'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Angelica Voje as Vitige and Carolyn Dobbin as Teodata in English Touring Opera's 'Flavio'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

The work has two really serious characters, the lovers Emilia (Paula Sides) and Guido (James Laing) and two light characters, Flavio the king (Clint van der Linde) and Teodata (Carolyn Dobbin) who is Vitige's lover but who is loved by Flavio. Flavio is an entirely capricious and dictatorial monarch, but whereas this can lead to tragedy in a work like Tamerlano, in Flavio Handel ensures that Flavio's music is light and often dance-like.

Teodata is an opportunist flirt, a character which crops up in many of Handel's operas. The role was written for Anastasia Robinson and is a low mezzo role. At the start of the opera, Teodata loves and is loved by Vitige (Angelica Voje), which is a low soprano role (nowadays usually sung by mezzos). Vitige suffers when Teodata responds to Flavio's approaches to Teodata. This means that Voje and Dobbin had the tricky task of balancing the serious and the light-hearted, but also had to make a relationship work in which the man had the higher voice than the woman.

Dobbin was wonderfully flirtatious as Teodata, with none of the hints of mumsiness which can come with this type of role. And Voje was a revelation as Vitige. Though Conway allowed Dobbin to be flirty he ensured that we took her entirely seriously, never sending her up. This allowed Voje to react in a series of heartfelt and beautifully formed arias. Voje had an attractive plangent voice which was coupled with a serious stage demeanour which was suitably masculine.

James Laing as Guido. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
James Laing as Guido. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

In theory, of course, the leading man is the role of Guido. When I last heard this opera the role was played by a woman, here it was sung by counter-tenor James Laing. Laing has a beautiful, soft grained voice. This was coupled with a rather studious stage manner, emphasised by his use of a pair of glasses, as if Conway meant to emphasise that Guido's heroics in Act 2 were not really in his normal manner. Laing sang his first couple of arias beautifully and neatly but I felt that he was being a little too careful over the passagework, I wanted him to rather let go. It was only at the very end of the opera, when Guido thinks he has lost everything, that Laing really found form and gave a truly heartfelt account of Guido's final aria. Laing is a highly musical singer and I do hope that his performance of Guido beds in during the run so that he can demonstrate his real potential.

As Emilia, Paula Sides demonstrated a stronger projection of musical character from the start. Her operatic experience includes Pamina, Gilda and Mimi as well as Handel. I think this showed in the way her fine dramatic was combined with a technique which was not quite as accurate as Laing's. Some of her passagework was smudged and her ornaments tended to be a little on the over-ambitious side. But in the context of such a fine performance, these were small points. When it came to Emilia's last aria in Act 2, Sides was devastating, as the character wars between love for Guido and desire for revenge as he has killed her father.

The main dramatic point of the opera, when Guido kills Emilia's father Lotario (Andrew Slater), comes about because Lotario and Ugone (Joseph Cornwell) argue over points of honour. This happens when Flavio casually awards the lesser man (Ugone) the governership of Britain purely so that Flavio can get easier access to Ugone's daughter. In this way Flavio's amusingly casual attitude to life is the main cause of the tragedy that happens.

Andrew Slater as Lotario and Paula Sides as his daughter Emilia. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Andrew Slater as Lotario and Paula Sides as his daughter Emilia. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

Slater, as Lotario, was genial and bluff, if a bit rough around the edges but Cornwell's Ugone veered rather too over the top into camp. Granted they are comic characters, their feud is ridiculous, but I felt that Conway and Cornwell went a little too far.

It must be admitted that Clint van der Linde's Flavio was not quite in the same class as the performance by Iestyn Davies (another ETO alumnus) which I heard at the Barbican last year. But Van der Linde's rich, vibrato-laden voice seemed quite appropriate for the effete Flavio. Though the character was not too over the top, I felt that Conway and Van der Linde had gone rather more for camp than characterisation in the comedy.

Inevitably the opera was cut: my recording runs to over 150 minutes of music, and ETO gave us 120 minutes, though thankfully this meant that we were able to have two intervals. But such cuts must be seen in the context of performances which will be toured, along with four other Handel operas.

Angelica Voje as Vitige and Clint van der Linde as Flavio. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Angelica Voje as Vitige and Clint van der Linde as Flavio. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

Conway's production was admirably straightforward, concentrating on projecting the character and minds of the protagonists without trying to apply too many directorial pensées. There were moments when there was a little too much coming and going, but generally Conway seemed entirely happy to trust Handel's music. There was a strange undertow of musical references in the design which I didn't understand, and more puzzlingly the cast kept bringing out books and made as if they were singing from them. As a concept it didn't disturb me, but then again it didn't illuminate either.

ETO's brilliant achievement here was to bring a talented group of young singers together and get them to create an evening of musical drama. The cast and director all obviously trusted Handel's sense as a musical dramatist and all the singers were creditable Handelians, making for a fine strong performance.

The counter tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny (who plays Polinesso in Ariodante) demonstrated his versatility by conducting with flair and consideration. At the opening of the overture I was worried that his rather extravagant manner of conducting would signal a self-indulgent performance. But not a bit: Kenny kept things moving whilst always allowing the singers time and space. The small band, 28 players, provided crisp accompaniment and never made you feel that they were undernourished.

Paula Sides as Emilia. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Paula Sides as Emilia. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

Doing this tour as part of their thirtieth anniversary celebrations is a big milestone for ETO, one that they could not have done without help from the Arts Council, the Paul Hamlyn Foundataion, The Geoffrey C Hughes Charitable Trust, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Royal College of Music. But the biggest credit must go to Conway and his cast who, by giving such an enthralling performance, demonstrated that nowadays we don't need to make excuses when going to see Handelian opera seria.

Copyright © 17 October 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK











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