Premiered at the King’s Theatre in May 1723, Flavio is one of those Handel operas – Serse and Partenope are others – 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 the composer’s most endearing stage works. Handel’s aristocratic audiences, though, evidently preferred operas of a loftier cast. Despite the presence of the two biggest stars of the day, Cuzzoni and Senesino, Flavio ran for just eight performances (Giulio Cesare, its immediate successor, netted 13), and was revived just once in Handel’s lifetime.
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. Opening with a delectable nocturnal love duet for Teodata and her secret lover Vitige, Act 1 is light in tone, with a succession of arias in graceful and/or jaunty dance rhythms. Then, as the plot takes a darker, potentially tragic turn, Handel responds with some of his most piercing arias, above all for the heroine Emilia (the Cuzzoni role), whose father Lotario has been killed in a duel by her fiancé Guido. Lotario’s death apart, all ends well, of course, with Emilia and Guido reconciled and reunited after she has feared him dead, and the ever-capricious Flavio “punishing” Vitige by granting him the hand of Teodata.
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, whether in Emilia’s haunting siciliano aria that closes Act 2, cleaving mournfully to the minor key virtually throughout, or Guido’s desolate final aria, in the rare, “extreme” key of B flat minor. 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, through her aching farewell to Guido – one of those ravishing, timeless Handelian moments – to the grieving intensity of her siciliano lament for her father. The sole rival Flavio, directed by René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi, 7/90), has been rightly praised. But on balance I’d recommend this beautifully recorded new version of Handel’s flavoursome tragicomedy, 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.