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David Walker (Photo: David Rodgers)
15 Apr 2007

Handel's Flavio at NYCO

Incongruity was the rule of the day in the New York City Opera’s production of Handel’s Flavio, which opened on Wednesday, April 4.

Above: David Walker (Photo: David Rodgers)


From David Zinn’s fantastic sets to the gender-bending casting to the non sequitur romp through human emotion with every new scene, the production was a delight to behold, though I fear that the novelty of combining two counter tenors and a pants role trumped all else that was wonderful.

Flavio is characteristic of full-length Handel opera, deftly combining the tragic and comic as Mozart and Rossini would later do. An on-stage death and subsequent lament is followed immediately by a comic scene involving a love triangle, which is in turn followed by a scene in which one of our heroes pleads with his love to kill him. There is always danger that such manic drama will jar the senses a bit too much, but Flavio is one of the more subtle examples in Handel’s oeuvre.

The potpourri was emphasized by Zinn’s colorful sets and costumes. Fanciful greens, pinks, yellows, and blues combined to embolden the incongruities of the work. One of the most prominent sets was a high grassy hedge, on which hung lamps belonging inside. The hedge functioned alternately as garden and throne room, leaving the audience to incorporate grass in the royal chamber and fancy lighting in the great outdoors. The costuming was equally as creative; at one point Theodata, played by Kathryn Allyn, donned the baroque version of a French maid costume.

Make no mistake, however, the night belonged to the performers, especially the high-pitched male heroes of the story. Two lead roles in this opera were written for castrati, with a third pants role to boot. While revered and sexually desired in their day, the operation involved in creating the castrato voice has since understandably fallen out of favor. So we have counter tenors instead. City Opera conveyed to the audience the import of having two men sing their falsetto out in the six-page preparatory essay in the program booklet. The article explicated the history of castrati and the modern rise of the counter tenor, which author Marion Lignana Rosenberg links to the contemporary early music revival. Rosenberg also mentions the gender issues inherent when men sing in traditionally female registers, likening the operatic trend to the popularity of high-pitched male crooners in pop music.

Indeed, although the counter tenor voice is both aesthetically beautiful and fascinating from the perspective of the historian, gender issues were key in the audience’s reception of Flavio. And how could they not be? In this city, in this business, at a critical time in the gay rights movement, it is natural and healthy that an opera with two fabulous men playing the studly heroes and a woman as the third-most-testosterone-filled character comes to the fore. And so it was that the audience’s awareness of these issues was palpable. There was dead silence, the likes of which I’ve hardly experienced, during the first counter tenor aria of the evening (ably sung by Gerald Thompson), and later giggles as Emilia, Guido’s love interest, sang “when it comes to odd lovers” (these among a slew of further examples I could note).

If members of the audience did tear their minds from such novelty, they heard a sound and capable cast. David Walker was returning to the title role, and he handled the mood changes deftly all the while singing a massive range of notes. Gerald Thompson as Guido filled the other counter tenor role. His voice was more developed although his acting left much to be desired. Katherine Rohrer played Vitige, Flavio’s servant who outwits his (or her?) master to get the girl in the end, a power play redolent of later Mozart and Rossini. Ms. Rohrer has a sweet and clear voice and first-rate comedic timing. Kathryn Allyn’s deep mezzo was well served in the role of Theodata, and Marguerite Krull sang beautifully as Emilia, especially in the lament. Indeed, Ms. Krull proved to be the most adept Handel interpreter of the bunch with her florid, effortless cadenzas. Notable too was the period orchestra, lead by William Lacey on the harpsichord. Their ensemble skills and obvious diligent work at authenticity were admirable.

In all, the New York City Opera’s production of Flavio was at once delightfully whimsical and timely. All elements pulled together to create a wonderfully incongruous whole. May we see many more such gender-bending productions in the future!

Sarah Gerk

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