Flavio - English Touring Opera - RCM Britten Theatre, 15 November 2009
English Touring Opera's five-opera Handelfest, celebrating - guess who - kicked off on Thursday with the inexplicably underexposed Flavio. The characters are crafted clearly and reasonably credibly, and it's never less than lively. The weaknesses if any are a shortage of tunes you can hum and a neatly-knitted happy ending that strains credulity more than a little.
Even though very little was trimmed from its two and a half hour length, it moved along with tremendous pace, the momentum never flagging. That's partly down to the writing - a busy plot which intertwines a comic and a more serious story line, with plenty of short arias. But the staging too was very effective. With ETO's usual ingenuity in turning budgetary constraints to creative advantage, a plain blue wall, cleverly lit, formed a simple backdrop for a production focused on character and plot. Lest anyone might feel fobbed off by minimalism, lavish costuming provided a reassuringly traditional touch.
The 400 seater Britten Theatre - an opera house in miniature - was tailor-scaled for the small baroque band, including a harpsichord, two theorbos and a pair of reassuringly unshiny bassoons. Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted like a singer - well, he is one (appearing in Ariodante later in the week) - always with great consideration for balance and pacing.
Casting was strong, and the action seemed assured and well-rehearsed. I was particularly impressed by Paula Sides, the soprano in the 'straight' role of dutiful daughter Emilia. Andrew Slater and Joseph Cornwell were well-cast as the aging courtiers Lotario and Ugone whose rivalry (over the governorship of Britain, of all the things to fight about) turns from comic to fatal. An auspicious start to the season that indicates there will be plenty to look forward to from the remaining operas over the coming week.