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Paula Sides as Emilia in <em>Flavio</em> [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of the English Touring Opera]
03 Nov 2009

Flavio and Alcina by ETO

In celebration of their 25th birthday and the 250th anniversary of the death of Handel, English Touring Opera has devised Handelfest, an extravaganza of five operas (Flavio, Teseo, Tolomeo, Alcina and Ariodante) and a wide variety of masterclasses and workshops taking in several of the company’s usual touring venues.

G. F. Handel: Flavio; Alcina

Click here for cast information

Above: Paula Sides as Emilia in Flavio

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of the English Touring Opera

 

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 project.

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

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