The roving eye of a philandering royal is caught by the peachy charms of a courtier's daughter. To clear the field for a regal bit on the side, he makes the courtier Governor of Britain. But when the newly-appointed Governor is slighted by a jealous rival for the position, the only revenge is death, and the only man for the hit job is his own son - who just happens to be engaged to the victim's daughter.
The resonances are all too obvious, short only of a dodgy expense claim or two. It sounds like the perfect opportunity to update Handel with a spot of contemporary political satire. But James Conway's production opts instead for a more traditional approach based on the timelessness of Flavio's tragicomic themes. The battle between filial duty and romantic love lends the weight, and the one between public duty and firmly-zipped trousers generates the laughs.
Lavishly brocaded costumes and decorous manners inspired by Handel's own era are highlighted by Joanna Parker's minimalist set. The bareness of a single bright blue wall is punctuated only by a couple of doorways and a hatch-like window, but the occasional table or curtain and Kevin Treacy's subtle lighting changes soften its starkness.
Some fine performances draw out the complicated relationships and delicate balance between seriousness and humour with admirable clarity. Countertenor James Laing is the reluctant hitman Guido, a bespectacled wimp so drippy it's hard to understand what the lovely Emilia (Paula Sides) sees in him. Vitige (a trouser role for Angelica Voje) seems a much hotter bet. No wonder Carolyn Dobbin's lustrous Teodata can't keep her hands off - the opera begins with the rumpled lovers tumbling on to the stage after a night of pre-marital passion.
Joseph Cornwell and Andrew Slater bluster and bully effectively as the rival fathers Ugone and Lotario, proving that age and maturity never go hand in hand where politicians are concerned. The whole cast is comprehensively outflourished by the pantomime camp of the second countertenor Clint van der Linde as King Flavio.
Yet another countertenor, Jonathan Peter Kenny, switched to baton duties for the night, conducting the small baroque-flavoured orchestra with a singer's sensitivity to balance.
Surtitles are so prevalent now that it seems a bold move to do without, even when the opera is in English. In this case it spares any dwelling on Andrew Jones's clunky translation, but does demand clear diction. Most of the cast oblige, and where they don't, Handel's penchant for repetition is more welcome than ever.
- Jenny Beeston