OPERA / The cheek of it: Michael Dervan on Handel's Flavio in Dublin

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The Independent Culture
Apologists for Handel's Flavio are far from shy in singing its praises. Winton Dean has called it 'a little masterpiece', and Stanley Sadie, editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, has described it as 'possibly the most delectable of all Handel's operas'. Small wonder, then, that Opera Theatre Company, who staged Handel's Tamerlano two years ago, should have turned next to Flavio, which they are currently giving in Andrew Jones's English translation as A Slap on the Cheek. The new touring production, directed by James Conway (OTC's artistic director) had a four- night run at Dublin's Gate Theatre last week.

The plot - unravelling the consequences of regal intervention in a love affair - was well-nigh impossible to take in from OTC's printed synopsis in a single reading. It was to Conway's credit that the clarity of events on stage was never in doubt. Unfortunately, the significance of those events for the characters involved and for the audience was less clear.

Joanna Parker's open- sided, flat, blue set, with its pair of double doors and central, window-like flap, never came to seem anything more than just a flat, blue set that was big enough to engage the singers in uncalled-for walks around and across it. Oddly, for a staging where the movement was so consistently devoid of interest, Parker received a double credit as both choreographer and designer. The direction, particularly in the case of the trouser-role of Flavio (Rebecca dePont Davis) and his counsellor, Ugone (Paul McCann), seemed set on raising laughs through pantomimic camp. Yet the handling of the two sets of lovers was apt to descend into mawkishness.

Happily, much of the singing was more engaging. In the small role of Lotario, the bass John Milne, though somewhat coarse in tone, handled recitative with a musical and meaning-full stylishness that drew attention to the tendency of the other singers to rush their words.

Among the lovers, the Emilia of soprano Deborah York carried off the richly expressive disconsolation of 'How can revenge be meted?' with full conviction. The vocally clear and agile, if hooty, counter-tenor of Guido, her intended (Jonathan Peter Kenny, in one of the roles originally for castrato), cut a rather pathetic heroic figure. The mezzo passion of Lynda Lee's Vitige (a trouser-role) was quite thrilling (though she slipped too easily into histrionics), and the charm of Imelda Drumm's mezzo Teodata (the object of Vitige's affections, who is also desired by King Flavio) was mitigated by the weakness of her lower register.

Rebecca dePont Davis camped up the role of Flavio (the work's second castrato role) with accomplished relish, but the antics of tenor Paul McCann's ridiculously ridiculous Ugone were made all the harder to bear because of his viciously pinched tone.

Simon Corder's distinctive lighting successfully bridged some of the gaps left by the direction and, though Seamus Crimmins' conducting was generally agreeable (the continuo boasts a theorbo as well as a harpsichord), a firmer ensemble between singers and orchestra, as well as more decisive setting of tempos (and tempo changes within arias), would have been more than welcome.

Michael Dervan is Music Critic of the 'Irish Times'