The Academy of Ancient Music's one-off performance of Handel's opera Flavio at the Barbican was a complete sell out. Packed to the rafters, the audience buzzed with excitement, waiting for the slightly altered line-up; Sandrine Piau was replaced at the last minute by Karina Gauvin. After what seemed a slightly rushed beginning – Christopher Hogwood starting up before the singers even has a chance to sit down – it was an enthusiastic performance from Hogwood, with some beautiful ensemble playing from the AAM.
As this is one of Handel's lesser-known operas, and one he is rumoured to have completed only a week before its first performance, there was a definite feeling within the audience of discovering something unknown and special. The plot to this tragicomedy is fairly simple – the normal scenario of love triangles and jealousy, a spot of murder and a neat reconciliation to tidy it all up at the end. However, the slight banality of the plot did not, in my opinion, take anything away from what is undeniably some sublime musical writing and a great performance.
Maite Beaumont (playing Vitage) and Renata Pokupic (playing Teodata) began with a beautifully balanced duet, and despite this being an unstaged performance, they interjected just enough acting, movement, and interaction between them to bring the plot and sentiments of the arias to life. This style was continued by each of the singers in turn, who successfully infused a sense of acting and drama into the performance.
Robin Blaze (Guido) produced a confident and full countertenor tone with some beautifully flowing faster passages and persuasive acting. In line with the comical spirit of the opera and the relatively warm and relaxed atmosphere of this performance, there was a ripple of laughter from the audience as one of the oboists took on a momentary silent role, presenting an envelope to Guido. Still more laughter ensued as this envelope was revealed to contain a Proms-style British flag. Hogwood seemed entirely relaxed in his conducting. Indeed he seemed to be enjoying himself very much, demonstrating a strong relationship with the orchestra. He seemed to know the music so well, conducting not only from the score but from the heart. Intuitive conducting such as this is surely the leading force, inspiring a performance with such magical quality.
His manipulation of the tempo was perfect at every change – whisking the audience up with the exhilaration of faster passages, and allowing the singers sufficient space in the slower arias to fully express the emotions within the text. Even on the occasion I feared too ambitious a pace had been set, it was never too much for the singers. James Gilchrist (Ugone) sang with great passion and vigour in his first aria, despite the breakneck pace set by the orchestra. The continuo playing was pleasantly tight throughout and particularly sensitively and expressively executed by cellist, Joseph Crouch. Although each of the singers contributed something different to the performance, one stood out for me above the others. Both the rich tone of Maite Beaumont's voice and her wonderful ability to express the emotions of her character made her performance truly captivating. Part of her success surely must lie in her freeness from the music – she barely glanced at the score during her arias. Others were much less confident in knowing the music, thus she had the edge in expressive communication.
The death of Lotario, it's fair to say, definitely veered on the side of comedy rather than tragedy. Thankfully, this can only have been the way they intended it, and, probably given the friendly atmosphere of this performance, it was not a horribly comic experience but was in fact well received by the audience, who embraced the deliberately half-hearted depiction of his death. This joke was continued with a knowing laugh between audience and singer at the reappearance of Lotario at the dénouement of the opera to sing the final chorus with the rest of the cast.
This comedic ending was representative of the mood of the evening as a whole – a stunning performance of some truly beautiful music but set within a warm, friendly atmosphere on stage that permeated into the audience. An audience that very much appreciated this combination too – rapturous applause resounded around the hall, in a way that was more effusive and genuine than I have heard in a very long time.