Flavio re de’ Longobardi
~ HWV 16 ~
Released in 1990.
Reissued in 2003.
Recorded in 1989.
Flavio: Jeffrey Gall, countertenor
Guido: Derek Lee Ragin, countertenor
Emilia: Lena Lootens, soprano
Teodata: Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano
Vitige: Christina Högman, soprano
Ugone: Gianpaolo Fagotto, tenor
Lotario: Ulrich Messthaler, bass
Director: René Jacobs
With eight performances in May and June 1723, Flavio is one of the less successful operas by Handel first produced for the Royal Academy of Music. The quality of the music and of the cast (Gaetano Berenstadt as Flavio, Senesino as Guido, Francesca Cuzzoni as Emilia, Margherita Durastanti as Vitige, Anastasia Robinson as Teodata, Giuseppe Maria Boschi as Lotario, and Alexander Gordon as Ugone) does not explain this relative lack of success compared to many other productions of the Academy.
Maybe an ambiguous libretto (Winton Dean defines Flavio as ‘an antiheroic comedy with tragic undertones’) could begin to offer an explanation. The libretto, based on an old Venetian one by Matteo Noris (1682), arguably includes comic reminiscences in some situations, particularly concerning the behaviour of two quarrelling fathers (Lotario and Ugone). However, such a work can be understood in different ways: its parodic nature, plainly evident for a 20th or 21st century reader or listener, might not have seemed so distant from the serious style of the Royal Academy of Music’s productions between 1720 and 1728.
After an overture full of grandeur, the opera begins with a farewell duet which immediately throws the listener into the action. It is followed by recitatives and arias composed with Handel’s usual high standard of imagination and dramatic efficiency, even if Flavio does not sound as moving as many other Handel operas. Among the numerous highlights of the score, we can mention ‘Rompo i laci, e frango i dardi’ (Guido, Act II scene 6) with its two strongly contrasted sections, Emilia’s largo ‘Ma chi punir desio?’ (Act II, scene 11), or the beautiful ‘Amor, nel mio penar’ (Guido, Act III scene 4).
René Jacobs’s recording is of a high standard too, stylish, with accurate tempi (something not that common nowadays), excellent da capos and sung by a very good cast whose only weak point is Ulrich Messthaler’s shaky voice. In the Berenstadt-Senesino duel, the victory is clearly Derek Lee Ragin’s. His involvement, the qualities of his voice and overall singing result in a great performance, full of depth, emotions and vocal pleasure. This is probably one of the very best performances of a countertenor in a Handel opera recording. Jeffrey Gall is a good and interesting Flavio, but his singing is less accurate, the voice is less steady and his pronunciation of Italian – though similar to Ragin’s accent – is less clear. Lena Lootens is a good Emilia though her highest notes are slightly tense. Christina Högman and Bernarda Fink are excellent and Gianpaolo Fagotto is almost as good but, as often with tenor parts, not really using the appropriate vocalità. Yet Flavio is an opera worth knowing and this is a very good and sometimes excellent performance.
© Philippe Gelinaud - August 2005
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