MUSIC / As sure as eggs is eggs: Stephen Johnson reviews Handel's Flavio and Saul at the Covent Garden Festival, London (CORRECTED)

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Among the legions of Handel operas and oratorios, there are those which contain good things, and those which are good things. The oratorio Saul sits splendidly in category two, while the opera Flavio is fairly typical of category one.

To enjoy Flavio completely, you need an inexhaustible appetite for the da capo (A-B-A) aria, and it's better if you haven't heard a hundred other 18th-century variations on the 'X loves Y but Y loves Z' plot. Saul, on the other hand, has a gripping story, a fascinating hero, formal subtlety and an ability to match music to character that in places rivals even Mozart. In its three acts it has only four straight da capo arias, but each one is like a perfectly set gem. Sitting through the three acts of Flavio is rather like spending an entire day looking at Faberge eggs - all very beautiful, but couldn't he have tried another shape just once in a while?

All credit to the BOC Covent Garden Festival for giving us this opportunity to compare and contrast, though it would have been better still had the performances been more equally matched. Saul, directed by Paul McCreesh, came over magnificently; Freemasons' Hall is both grand and slightly absurd, but it sounds glorious, the acoustic generous yet clearly focused. The Gabrieli Players handled this dramatic, gorgeously colourful score with feeling and panache, while the Gabrieli Consort - small though they may be by conventional Handelian standards - made almost every chorus a tingle-inducing event.

Crowning this Saul was a superb cast. A strikingly Napoleonic Christopher Purves was King Saul - a vivid portrayal of power corrupted, strongly sung. Marc le Broc was a tender, ardent Jonathan, equally secure technically. Mhairi Lawson and Julia Gooding as Saul's very different daughters (not the only echo of King Lear) were lifelike and vocally very persuasive. But the strongest musical impression was left by the alto Jonathan Peter Kenny as David - his tone full and rounded throughout his range, and with the ability to turn David's formalised aria in Act 1 into something supple, sensual and innocently moving.

No complaints? The lighting could be retina-blasting; the in-the-round semi-staging meant that the singers always had their backs to someone; the Edwardian costume took some getting used to; and Michael Lessiter's Ghost of Samuel, singing from the reverberant darkness beyond huge, open doors, was a chilling moment - literally.

In Flavio, Kenny appeared again, this time bringing warmth to the role of Guido in the equally generous but not so clear sound-space of St Paul's Church. Deborah York was a brilliant, passionate Emilia, and there were strong, stirring performances from Lynda Lee (Vitige) and John Bowen (Ugone). However, Rebecca dePont Davis's breathy, wobbly, limply-acted Flavio was deeply unsympathetic, dramatically and musically, while the playing of the apparently ad hoc orchestra fell below the standards set by McCreesh in Saul. Ensemble had its precarious moments; in Saul - where at times the singers (including chorus) couldn't see the conductor - there was a firmer sense of togetherness. But Flavio has its handful of gems - especially the Act 2 numbers for Guido and Emilia, and Kenny and York did them more than justice. We should hear more of them.

The Festival continues until 22 May (Details: 071-413 3531)


We have been asked to make it clear that of the two Covent Garden Festival Handel stagings reviewed yesterday, 'Saul' was presented by the Gabrieli Consort, 'Flavio' by the Opera Theatre Company, Dublin