Flavio, King of the Lombards, written in 1723, is the fourth of Handel’s full length operas for The Royal Academy, and was first performed at the King’s Theatre in The Haymarket, and revived under the direction of the composer in 1732. It then remained unperformed until it was re-discovered and staged in Gottingen in 1967.
The action, which is quite complex, all takes place in a day, and encompasses an illicit affair, a King who is looking to add a mistress to his stable, four star-struck lovers, an ambitious courtier and a fatal duel. This presents the director with some challenges as well as opportunities. James Conway appears to have decided to present Flavio as a rather languorous and somewhat simple fellow, which certainly drew some laughs from the audience. However, I was distracted as my reading of the libretto gave me the impression that Handel’s approach would have been much more dramatic and seriously played before leading to a “happy” resolution.
The overture is full of life and gives a great picture of what is to come. The orchestra, under the assured baton of Jonathan Peter Kenny, plays it well and with great dash and clarity. They proceeded to give a splendidly well balanced rendering of the rest of the opera with some beautiful playing in the love duet for Teodata and Vitige and also the tenor, Ugone. What is particularly effective is the light and shade they bring to the whole piece which enhances the dramatic effect of some very exciting writing by Handel.
The singing is not of a uniform standard, although all seven characters performed well. Outstanding as Vitige, a trouser role, is Lina Markeby, a singer to watch out for in the future. Her musicality is in every bar and her vocal control is of the highest order. Clint Van Der Linde gives a sound performance as Flavio which would probably have been better had he felt more at ease with the character he was asked to portray. In the role of Claudio, Jake Arditti shows promise but needs to relax more, whereas tenor Mark Wilde’s portrayal of Ugone is an unbridled delight. Andrew Slater’s Lotario is vocally assured but too buffoonish to be a credible state counsellor. Kitty Whately as Ugone’s daughter Teodata, and Paula Sides as the young bride to be, Emilia, both sing with great clarity of diction and security of line but both could have added more emotion and passion to their roles.
It’s easy to be critical of the production but the work is not an easy one for any director to get a real handle on (no pun intended). Nevertheless, given the quality of the music it’s pretty unfathomable that the work has not attracted more productions. It’s a gift to a director and Flavio is a work that those in charge of our nation’s opera houses should consider staging. It contains some brilliant music and has the makings of a really dramatic evening.