A successful Handel production requires a number of things and English Touring Opera's Flavio has them all. To begin with, you need a director and a conductor who understand the point of a da capo aria. Far too often, Handel operas are ruined by directors who conclude that a da capo aria is dull and therefore feel impelled to impose a lot of pointless business on it, and by musical directors who aren't able to conjure the necessary shape and changes of mood. Fortunately neither director James Conway nor conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny fall into these traps. Conway consistently directs his principals with intelligence. He understands that these arias must be allowed to tell their stories, that you have to work with Handel's pacing not ignore it. In the pit Kenny has the right sense of colour and movement to bring each number musically alive through the medium of the consistently fine playing of The Old Street Band.
Such sensitivity from director and conductor would avail nought if the principals themselves were not up to the challenge. Fortunately they are, espcially at this performance where the challenge for two of them was mulitiplied well beyond what any soloist should expect to need to cope with in an evening at the opera. In the supporting roles Mark Wilde (Ugone) and Andrew Slater (Lotario) do a nice job of flouncing and obeisance with Slater especially fine in his aria in Act Two commanding his daughter Emilia (Paula Sides) to reject the man she loves. Clint van der Linde as Flavio is a suitably ghastly monarch. Moving on to the lovers, Kitty Whately (Teodata) gives a beautifully characterised performance of the flirt, briefly seduced by the idea of becoming queen, who nevertheless proves faithful to her lowlier lover in the end. Among many beautifully judged moments, I was moved by the aria in which her lover is forced, a la Cyrano, to woo her in the King's name. Jake Arditti (Guido), the male half of the other couple sang the fast sections of his arias very well but tended to disappear beneath the band in the B sections (though this may have been a problem of balance which in the Stalls at the Theatre Royal, Lincoln, is not always perfect). However, the standout performance of the night came from Paula Sides as Emilia and Vitige. Before you ask, this is not a normal doubling. It was announced at the start of the evening that Lina Markeby was suffering a throat infection and that Sides and Whately would share the singing from off-stage, while the Assistant Director Anna Tolputt would act the role on stage. For Sides in particular this was assuming a heavy amount of singing with arias off-stage several times being followed by arias on. To her credit there was no sense of strain, or loss of power in her depiction of Emilia which was beautifully sung and very moving.
This show also benefits from being seen in an intimate space like Lincoln's Theatre Royal. Most of the time when I go to the opera in London I'm up in the Gods where it is very difficult to achieve the same sense of connection with the performers. It was a treat to be close enough to appreciate every facial expression and to be so easily drawn into the drama of the performance. Most of all, the evening brought home once again Handel's masterly ability to depict the joys and torments of love. Even when the plot is a little flimsy (as it is here in the grounds for the acts of revenge) there is an inner truth to it concerning what love can drive us to. Whether it was the coqettish playfulness of Vitige and Teodata, or the nervous tension between Emilia and Guido who never quite manage to kiss through the whole show, these performances succeeded in making their characters live, and making me care.
Finally, I feel the substitution deserves a Where's Runnicles award. Regular readers will know that we do already have an award for stepping into gargantuan shoes at the last moment, but this doesn't seem to quite cover last night's heroics. So instead, the inaugual award for Operatic Substitution Beyond the Call of Duty goes to Paula Sides and Kitty Whately.
This show tours after Lincoln (and I should take this opportunity to say how grateful I am to ETO for bringing live opera to Lincoln for the first time since I moved here in 2009, I sincerely hope they'll be back) to Harrogate, Wycombe, Exeter, and Malvern. Full details can be found here. I urge you to pick up a ticket. In the meantime, I look forward to tonight's performance of Xerxes.