City Opera began its review of Handel's neglected "Italian operas" in 1966 with a revival of "Giulio Cesare," which established Beverly Sills as a star singing the role of Cleopatra. Paul Kellogg, the company's current director, has seven Handel productions to his credit, including "Flavio," which was composed just before "Giulio Cesare." "Flavio" was not heard from 1732 until 1967, when it was revived in Germany.
"If I had my choice, I would do all 46 of Handel's operas," Kellogg said in an interview. "Who know? Before it's over I might, if I live long enough. 'Flavio' deals with typical Handel themes -– duty, honor, love -– but does so in a less formal way than usual and is very funny."
Handel (1685-1759) had made a name for himself as a composer in Italy and Germany when he settled in London in 1711 at the suggestion of royal patrons in Hanover, Germany, who would shortly inherit the British throne. In 1720 he founded the Royal Academy, which staged operas, mostly his, at the King's Theater, Haymarket, for the next eight years.
Handel wrote "Flavio" for the popular soprano, Francesca Cuzzoni, and the renowned castrato, Senesino, in the roles of Emilia and Guido, taken in the City Opera production by Jennifer Aylmer and Bejun Mehta. There is another castrato role, Flavio, sung by David Walker, and a mezzo soprano pants role, Vitige, sung with brio by Maria Zifchak. Other roles are taken by Mika Shigematsu, Keith Jameson, and Jan Opalach.
These are all young singers who, since the Handel revival, have been trained to deal with the composer's demanding vocal stylistics, including a florid approach to singing and a mastery of ornamental embellishments such as trills and roulades. Another aspect of the revival is the re-emergence of countertenors who can sing the unnaturally high castrato roles, and City Opera has the best in the business in Mehta and Walker.
"Flavio" has a plot by librettist Nicola Francesco Haym that draws on Italian legend mixed with Pierre Corneille's drama, "El Cid." Flavio is a frivolous Lombardian king enamored with Teodata (Shigematsu) who is secretly the mistress of Vitige. Teodata's brother, Guido, is affianced to Emilia, daughter of Flavio's counselor, Lotario (Opalach) who has ambitions to be governor of England, then an Italian colony.
Flavio appoints another of his counselors, Ungone, father of Teodata and Guido, to the govenorship, resulting in a quarrel between Lotario and Ungone that ends in a duel and the death of Lotario and causes a rift between Emilia and Guido. Further complications demand that Flavio rise to his responsibilities as a ruler and resolve the situation wisely by giving up Teodora to Vitige and reuniting Emilia and Guido.
Thanks to English surtitles, the audience is able to follow this complicated plot and enjoy the drolleries inherent in the story or invented by Charles Rader-Shieber, making his debut with the company as a director, and set and costume designer David Zinn, also making his debut along with lighting designer Lenore Doxsee.
There are beds of tulips that move at human beck and call, a rebellious daisy, a William Tell-ish game of archery, mazes of box hedge, a pavilion that opens up like a jewel box, and many other clever visual inventions. The 18th century costumes are amusingly cut of jewel-toned fabrics that delight the eye, especially a whole range of emerald greens contrasting with oranges and yellows.
But the chief attraction of this "Flavio" is the wonderful singing and Handel's magnificent musical score, commendably conducted by George Manahan.
Aymer's facile, warm soprano soars to coloratura heights with amazing ease and Mehta's smooth countertenor is richer throughout his vocal than ever before. Walker's countertenor is less polished but nonetheless effective, and his talent for comedy suits the role of Florio perfectly. Shigematsu is sprightly both vocally and as an actress, and bass-baritone Opalach and tenor Jameson are suitably blustering as the rival fathers.
Flavio is being performed through April 23.