Bayreuth Baroque Festival 2023 Review: Flavio, Re De’ Longobardi

Cenčić’s Superb Direction Takes Händel’s Drama To Higher Level

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Falk von Traubenburg)

Max Cenčić has a long-established reputation as a sensitive and technically brilliant virtuoso countertenor. However, over the past six or seven years, he has also become increasingly known for his skills as a stage director owing to a string of stunning productions, such as Hasse’s “Siroe,” which he toured in 2017. In 2020, he was appointed as the first artistic director of the newly formed Bayreuth Baroque Festival, which he opened with a spectacular presentation of Popora’s “Carlo il Calvo,” followed in 2022 with a dazzling staging of Vinci’s “Alessandro nell’Indie.”

For this season’s festival, he opted for a production of a Händel rarity, “Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi.” Unsurprisingly, the audience was expecting another thrilling presentation, and it was not to be disappointed!

Cenčić’s Insights Underpin His Brilliant Staging

Premiered at the King’s Theatre in London in 1723, “Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi,” written to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, was to be Händel’s fourth full-length opera for London’s Royal Academy of Music and ran for eight performances, which then, apart from four further performances in 1732, disappeared from the stage until the late 20th century. Even today, it remains one of Händel’s lesser-known operas. Possibly, it is its mixture of tragedy, amorous intrigues and comic episodes that has deterred theaters from staging it. Whether or not that is the case, it certainly did not deter Cenčić, who engaged fully with the opera’s tragic elements, such as the onstage murder of Lotario, while at the same time seamlessly integrating the comedy into the drama in a believable manner by promoting the stereotypical images we have of absolute monarchs as demanding, egoistic and even childlike, who exist in a luxurious environment, totally removed from reality.

The narrative centers on the court of Flavio and his flippant desire to seduce Teodata, the daughter of his advisor, Ugone. In doing so, he unleashes a train of events that leads to Ugone’s son, Guido, killing his own father-in-law, Lotario. Not that Flavio is particularly bothered by all this, but he does realize that by giving up his quest to seduce Teodata and by allowing her to marry Vitige, as well as by pardoning Guido, he will be seen as a benevolent monarch, thus allowing the opera to conclude with the required lieto fine.

Although Flavio acts as the driver behind the events, his overall role is relatively minor. It is the lovers, Guido and Emilia, who are given the showcase arias and dominate the stage. Cenčić, however, through his clever direction, ensured that Flavio’s position as king was elevated so that he became the fulcrum around which everything rotated. Clearly, taking his inspiration from Louis XIV and Versailles, Flavio’s every move became a public spectacle, a grandiose statement of his authority and absolute power, and a part of the ceremonial fabric of the state. Even having sex with his queen became a public event, whose conclusion was met with a round of applause from the court. This also had the effect of magnifying the comic possibilities of the role, allowing Cenčić to develop many scenes that left the audience chuckling and laughing out loud.

One of the factors that makes Cenčić’s productions so successful is his ability to craft a meaningful context for the narrative. Minor characters, for example, who may only be mentioned in the libretto but have no actual lines, are filled out and interact with the principal singers. Flavio’s queen is clearly a significant part of the court, but is only referred to; there is no part written for the character. Cenčić introduces her, along with her ladies-in-waiting and a dwarf companion, no doubt as a reference to the Spanish court, whom he provides with distinct characters and high-profile behavior. The narrative thereby becomes successfully embedded within the wider and more believable context of court life.

The simple yet effective sets, designed by Helmut Stürmer, consisted of six panels that could be rearranged to suggest different rooms within the 17th or 18th century palace. They were added to with chandeliers that were lowered from above, a few chairs and a large four-poster bed that was wheeled on and off for the ceremonial sex scenes. The three-act opera is comprised of 31 scenes, and the position of the panels was altered for almost every scene, which could have seriously disrupted the dramatic flow, but for Cenčić’s imaginative solution: for each change, a wigged man of importance would walk onto the stage, bang his staff on the floor, at which point the stage hands, dressed as servants, would enter and make the necessary changes. This was accompanied by a short orchestral interlude. The wigged man would then leave the stage, and the drama would recommence. It was also a device that emphasized the artificial construction of the court itself.

Corina Gramosteanu’s colorful, traditional costume designs were sensitively created to capture the period and affluence of the court, while also successfully helping to define the characters.

Lezhneva Leads A First-Rate Cast

The stellar cast, in which each role was wonderfully parted, was led by Max Cenčić himself in the role of Giulio and soprano Julia Lezhneva in the role of Emilia.

Of course, it was Lezhneva who caught the attention, and rightly so. She possesses an extraordinarily beautiful voice with a fabulous technique. As the emotionally battered Emilia, who suffers the trauma of having her lover, Guido, kill her father, upon whom she then feels the need to seek vengeance, she was able to display her excellent interpretative abilities to the fullest. In her aria “Amante stravagante,” which brings the first act to an end, she voiced her confusion about Guido’s behavior with a brilliant vocal display that moved between lines crafted with delicate and detailed embellishments to stunning passages of coloratura in which she moved the voice with untroubled ease.

She also brought the second act to a close, this time with the beautifully rendered aria “Ma chi punir desio?” in which the expressive sensitivity of her singing perfectly captured her heartfelt pain. However, it was the aria “Da te parto, ma concedi,” for which she produced a bravura performance, that really showed off her voice in the most spectacular fashion. The energy and emotion that she was able to imbue in her singing verged on the hysterical as she moved the voice with such passion through fabulously crafted coloraturas. It was, of course, not just her arias that impressed; her recitatives were also powerfully expressed, no more so than in the scene in which she confronts Guido, who offers her his life. The mixture of anger and pain, love and confusion, were all convincingly compressed into this single exchange.

In the role of Guido, Cenčić took the opportunity to show off his wonderful singing and splendid acting skills. Propelled into a situation in which he was forced to fight a duel with Lotario, Emilia’s father, he managed to maintain the impression of a man of upstanding character, loyal to both his own father and to Emilia. His recitatives were expertly developed to bring out their full dramatic meaning, and his arias were executed with emotional strength and sensitivity.

It was the aria “Rompo I lacci, e fango I dardi” that probably made the most immediate impression, in which he produced a flamboyant reading full of audacious leaps and intricate ornamentations, while his dizzying coloratura in the da capo section was breathtaking. However, a good case could easily be made for his moving Act three aria, “Amor, nel mio penar,” which he sung with such sensitive and deep expressivity.

Vitige is caught in the desperate situation of having to counsel Flavio about his feelings for Teodata, the woman who just happens to be his secret lover. Forced to hide his jealousy, the situation gets a lot worse before finally reaching its happy conclusion. The role fell to countertenor Yuriy Mynenko, who created a compelling reading in which he successfully moved from suppressing his feelings when in front of the king to voicing his fears, frustrations and passions when given the opportunity. It was an emotional rollercoaster, in which his arias gave him ample opportunity to display his talents, no more so than in “Sirti, scogli, tempeste, procelle,” in which he captured Vitige’s pain perfectly as he imbued his voice with passion and intensity, inflected the line with colorful and emotional emphases, and used ornamentations cleverly to depict his strong feelings.

Contralto Monika Jägerová produced a strong, energetic performance in the role of Teodata. From her opening exchanges and duet, “Ricordati mio ben,” with Vitige, she showed off the the warm, dark colors of her palette, which sat beautifully alongside Mynenko’s bright countertenor and successfully heightened the expressivity of her singing. It is also a versatile voice, which she employed sensitively to craft delicate embellishments, dynamic contrasts and subtly placed emphases, which she displayed to good effect in her Act three aria, “Che colpa è la mia,” in which she convincingly turned on Cupid for causing her so much pain.

The countertenor Rémy Brès-Feuillet produced a strongly defined portrait of the debauched and egotistical King Flavio, in which he displayed real skill in playing up the comedy in the role. He was suitably overbearing, dismissive and socially unaware and floated confidently through the scenes without any concern for his effects on those around him. His formal undressing when getting ready for bed was wonderfully amusing as he cast his underwear into the hands of his servants, while his passing over of a full, stinking chamber pot was revoltingly funny. By contrast, his singing was elegant, sensitive and beautifully fashioned, with pleasing ornamentations, a versatile coloratura and delicate phrasing.

Tenor Fabio Trümpy was cast in the role of Ugone. Singing with a pleasing tone and clarity of expression, he created a nicely drawn portrait of a victim who feels betrayed by his daughter, mistreated by Lotario, and at the mercy of the king’s whims. Both his arias and recitatives were expressively rendered. However, it was the aria “Fato tiranno e crudo” that stood out: not only was it well-sung, but he also gave his daughter a good thrashing for abusing his trust, which was nicely integrated into his anger and perfectly in time with the music.

Bass-baritone Sreten Manojlović created a compelling picture of Lotario as strong-willed, determinedly ambitious and courageous, traits that were ultimately led to his onstage death at the hands of Guido. For the most part, he sang with an expressive urgency, and in the aria “Se a te vissi fedele,” he gave voice to his rage at Ugone, which could be clearly heard in his angry coloratura.

The actress Filippa Kaye, cast as the Court Lady, sang a pleasing little ditty for the court’s entertainment.

“Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi” is one of Händel’s more lightly scored operas, written for strings and continuo, along with the sparing use of woodwinds. And although there are passages of dramatic intensity that emerge with substantial force, the overall sense is one of understatement, refinement and even irony. The musical director, Benjamin Bayl, leading the Concerto Köln, responded sensitively to Händel’s intentions, producing a clear, graceful and delicately detailed reading that was always sensitive to the drama, especially in capturing the work’s dramatic darker moments.

This production of “Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi” must go down as another triumph for the fledgling Bayreuth Baroque Festival. Although the undoubted star was the outstanding Lezhneva, most of the credit for the success must go to Cenčić, who, yet again, managed to create a compelling piece of theatre, one that drew in the audience and was able to keep them entranced for the entire evening.


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