As far as Handel operas go, there’s hardly a stone left unturned, and thanks are due in a large part to musicologist, harpsichordist and all-round Baroque-and-roller, Christopher Hogwood. In the run-up to the composer’s 250th anniversary in 2009 Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (where he is Emeritus Director) are presenting three annual concert performances of Handel’s lesser-known operas.
Last year they did Amadigi, and next will tackle Arianna in Creta, but last week gave his 1723 tragi-comedy Flavio, re de’ Langobardi a fresh airing. The opera’s impossibly knotty narrative, somewhat evocative of Boccaccio’s Decameron stories, tells of the loves and losses of seventh-century Italian noblemen in the court of King Flavio, before neatly unravelling into a far-fetched and fairy-tale resolution.
Musically speaking, there’s always a feeling of dj vu with Handel’s operas, and the Flavio score suggests elements of Giulio Cesare (which premiered the following year) to the modern listener. Lotario’s first aria ‘Se a te vissi fedele’, for example, sung here by the excellent James Rutherford, parallels Sesto’s ‘Svegliatevi nel core’, and there is the flavour of Cleopatra in one or two of Teodata’s teasing arias. Flavio may not have Giulio Cesare’s smash hits, indeed there’s the occasional turgid section, but it boasts some arias of great beauty and a wonderfully florid woodwind contribution.
The AAM accompanied a fine cast. Many will have been disappointed by the indisposition of Sandrine Piau, one of the most elegant of Baroque sopranos, and the jewel in the crown for this programme, but Karina Gauvin provided a more than adequate replacement in the role of Emilia. Renata Pokupic’s Teodata was enjoyable, although her lower register seemed indistinct at times, but Maite Beaumont was more remarkable: her voice is big, bold (Broadway, almost) but sensitively deployed, and her delivery was pitched to perfection as the amorous young courtier, Vitige. Elsewhere, James Gilchrist sang well as Ugone, Robin Blaze’s smooth and nimble counter-tenor got a good work-out in the part of Guido, and Iestyn Davies (soon to play Ottone in Glyndebourne’s L’incoronazione di Poppea), though fruitier toned, was impressive nonetheless as the ill-fated Flavio.
Courtly flourishes, come-hither looks, and huffy departures from the music stand all helped to guide the audience through the plot and provided the odd moment of welcome humour. Three hours of little-known Handel might have been a daunting prospect for some, especially without some placatory dance numbers from David McVicar, but Hogwood and his ensemble offered a confident, vivid, and engaging performance.