Handel's FlavioHandel's Flavio

Tim Mead (counterten) Flavio Iestyn Davies (counterten) Guido Rosemary Joshua (sop) Emilia Hilary Summers (contr) Teodata Renata Pokupić (mez) Vitige Thomas Walker (ten) Ugone Andrew Foster‑Williams (bass-bar) Lotario Early Opera Company / Christian Curnyn 

Chandos CHAN0773 (146’ · DDD · S/T/t) Buy from Amazon

Premiered at the King’s Theatre in May 1723, Flavio is one of those Handel operas that takes a wryly amused view of the power struggles, bulging egos and heroic posturing endemic to opera seria. With its pungent mix of comedy, ironic detachment and near-tragedy, it now seems one of the composer’s most endearing stage works. Set in a legendary Dark Ages when Britain was supposedly ruled by Lombardy, the plot hinges on the whims of the oversexed, cynically manipulative King Flavio, whose lust for the beautiful – and far from innocent – Teodata threatens to wreak havoc on everyone around him.

Christian Curnyn and his spruce period band finely catch the tone and tinta of this delectable opera. Tempi – mobile but never frenetic – are aptly chosen, rhythms buoyant. Yet Curnyn gives due weight to the opera’s graver moments. The singers, many of them Curnyn regulars, dispatch their arias with fine Handelian style and spirit, and, crucially, bring real theatrical vitality to their recitative exchanges. Handel curiously cast the part of Teodata (written for the deep contralto Anastasia Robinson) for a lower voice than that of her lover Vitige. But while her timbre more naturally suggests gravity than levity, Hilary Summers catches Teodata’s teasing, flirtatious nature through inflection and phrasing. As her lover Vitige, Croatian mezzo Renata Pokupic´ sings with grace, verve and (not least in Vitige’s jealous outburst in Act 3) an exciting flame in the tone; and Thomas Walker and the sonorous bass Andrew Foster-Williams excel in the blustering, mock-heroic coloratura arias for the squabbling councillors Ugone and Lotario.

As Flavio, Tim Mead sings smoothly and ­mellifluously without always catching to the full the mingled charm, absurdity and menace of the king’s character. Iestyn Davies, in the Senesino role of Guido, has slightly more ‘bite’ to his countertenor and rises impressively both to the anguished fury of his Act 2 aria ‘Rompo i lacci’ and the profound pathos of his final aria. Always a lovely Handel singer, Rosemary Joshua brings to Emilia’s glorious music a pure, lucent tone and a vivid sense of character, growing from initial blitheness to the grieving intensity of her siciliano lament for her father. The sole rival Flavio, directed by René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi), has been rightly praised. But on balance, this beautifully recorded new version of Handel’s flavoursome tragicomedy takes the palm, for its (on the whole) superior cast and orchestral playing, and for Curnyn’s direction, stylish, lively and unaffected where Jacobs can be irritatingly interventionist.

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