Before setting off from London, however,
ETO has chosen the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre —
which, as the operatic home of the London Handel Festival, is the
capital’s premier venue for Handel opera — to launch this ambitious
With four of the productions being revivals of recent stagings performed in
the course of ETO’s ordinary tours, the Handelfest’s one original
staging is Flavio, a piece which has never quite managed to find a
foothold in the repertoire perhaps on account of its opera semiseria status
which makes it something of a curiosity in Handel’s canon. The
combination of serious drama and broad comedy, which is how it is often played
here, doesn’t always sit easily; when our heroine’s lover, Guido,
kills his prospective father-in-law, Lotario, in a duel, it’s difficult
not to remember that the challenge came about as a result of his own
father’s preposterous overreaction to a slap in the face.
Flavio himself is actually a relatively small role, though the machinations
of the plot are precipitated by the eponymous monarch’s desire to
overcome such minor annoyances as fathers and existing lovers and have his
wicked way with a certain young lady of the court. Sung by Clint van der Linde
in a flexible and penetrating countertenor, this was one of two characters in
the opera which were given a light or comic aspect throughout. The pomp and
circumstance surrounding Flavio’s position here manifest themselves in a
series of self-consciously theatrical gestures, beginning with the red carpet
that unfurls itself behind him as a train when he makes his first appearance,
while his personal demeanour is debonair and more than slightly camp.
This and the comic bluster of tenor Joseph Cornwell’s Ugone (he of the
aforementioned slapped face) were in vivid contrast to what is at heart a dead
straight production. In costumes of Handel’s own period against a very
simple midnight-blue set, the serious centre of the piece is represented by
soprano Paula Sides as Emilia. A little acidity in the top notes
notwithstanding, her soprano is characterful with a slightly covered and smoky
timbre and she has real stage presence. As Guido, James Laing’s
countertenor is not a robust or powerful sound, but it is clear and even and
his delivery of the words eloquent, particularly in his confrontation with
Lotario — the pivotal scene in which the opera’s serious and
frivolous sides collide. Vocally, he finally allowed himself to shine in his
slow aria (‘Amor, nel mio penar’) — and here the visual
picture was at its most stark, with Guido alone and spotlit against the dark
blue background, in contrast to the assortment of props and stage clutter that
tended to accompany the more comic characters.
The dramatic middle ground is provided by the secondary lovers, Vitige and
Teodata. A plum role for a juvenile female alto (even playing a member of her
own sex — so rare in Handel!) it is Teodata who Flavio decides to win at
all costs. Carolyn Dobbin captures her uncomplicated sexiness beautifully, with
a relaxed and attractive presence and excellent diction. As the jealous Vitige,
the Norwegian mezzo Angelica Voje had a voice which readily evoked that of a
hot-blooded youth — light and flexible but still mettlesome.
The baritone Andrew Slater, though a little short of depth in his lower
register, presented a credible account of the unfortunate Lotario —
passed over for promotion in favour of Ugone, and slain by Guido.
Throughout the Handelfest several of the artists are performing and covering
multiple roles, and the conductor of Flavio goes one step further — he is
the countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny, who is appearing as Polinesso in
Ariodante. His conducting was sensitive to the singers, never
overwhelming the lighter voices, and providing a base upon which the fuller
lyric voices could bloom.
Two days later came a revival of Conway’s 2005 staging of
Alcina. As in its original run, this production alters the shape of
the work quite considerably due to the practical necessity of fitting it into a
three-hour slot; there is no chorus (the soloists form an ensemble where
musically necessary) and the treble/soprano role of Oberto is dispensed with
altogether, an omission which is arguably authentic on the grounds that it was
a late addition to the opera. Even so, that’s one high voice lost to the
opera’s colour palette, and another is sidelined — Morgana’s
opening aria is also consigned to the cutting-room floor, and delaying the only
interval until the middle of Act 2 takes the emphasis away from her usually
show-stopping Act 1 finale, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’. The cumulative
effect is a leaching of lightness from the piece.
Celeste Lazarenko, Nathan Vale and Natasha Jouhl from Alcina
It is possible that this was conceived deliberately in conjunction with the
stage concept. Alcina dwells in a mouldering classical palace, its textiles
threadbare, its chandelier crumpled on the floor and its splendid-looking
harpsichord flooded with a pool of water. It is a stifling world. And Celeste
Lazarenko’s Morgana was subtler than the usual sparkling soubrette: shy
and nicely vulnerable, and she has plenty of warmth at the core of her
elegantly poised light-lyric soprano.
That is not to say that the performance was short on lustre. Soprano Natasha
Jouhl’s account of the title role was exotic, glamorous and fulsomely
sung (and not in any way fazed by the shadow of the exceptional Amanda Echalaz,
who sang it in the 2005 run). The other lustrous performance, albeit in a more
conservative capacity, came from the Bradamante of Carolyn Dobbin, the one cast
member common to both Alcina and Flavio, this time in a much
more familiar Handelian archetype: the wronged woman in male disguise chasing
her faithless beloved. This piece of cross-dressing, one of those things one is
generally supposed to have read the synopsis in order to work out, is neatly
explained by a staged scene during the overture.
Wendy Dawn Thompson cut a dashing figure as a hot-blooded and
easily-distracted young man, but vocally was a frustrating Ruggiero, her pale
tone failing to match the weight of the other voices and (especially) failing
to engage with the virile masculinity of the orchestral and vocal writing in
‘sta nell'Ircana’ (‘Trapped by a hunter’). It was
always a lightish voice, but at the moment seems hollow and dry, as if
it’s going through a transition. I wonder if she might be looking at
experimenting with some soprano repertoire?
Under conductor Robert Howarth, the orchestral palette was vivid and the
playing brisk (the tempo of Oronte’s first aria especially so, tautly
delivered by Nathan Vale) if not always refined.
The tour, with its versatile ensemble shared variously between the five
operas, continues to Malvern, Exeter, Bath, Snape and Cambridge.
Ruth Elleson © 2009