Flavio is a superb little opera that is under-recorded and performed. This could be due from its chronological proximity to Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, but it cannot be due to the quality of the music. In addition to a high-quality score, Handel manages the switches between the comic half of the plot and the serious other half with consummate ease.
Rene Jacobs recorded Flavio in the early nineties and I've always considered it to be one of the best recordings of a Handel opera to have been made. So how do Curnyn and colleagues measure up?
Let's start with the cast. I have to say I think Jacobs comes out on top in most departments.
In the prima donna role of Emilia, Rosemary Joshua is outstanding. Whether she is actually better than Lena Lootens on Jacobs' set will, I suspect, be down to individual taste, but she is excellent.
Renata Pokupic is an excellent Vitige and it is pretty much impossible to choose between her and Christina Hogman on the rival version.
Tim Mead brings his usual musical qualities to the title role, although I prefer Jeffrey Gall in the Jacobs version. Gall's voice is more interesting and he sounds somewhat more love-struck than Mead.
Of the other characters, Thomas Walker has a clearer tenor voice than the rather tremulous Gianpaolo Fagotto on Jacobs' set - although I always rather liked the latter's memorable characterisation of the role.
Andrew Foster-Williams is a perfectly good Ugone, although not an improvement on his rival on the Jacobs set.
My main issues are with Iestyn Davies's Guido and Hilary Summers' Teodata.
Davies's voice is too slight and choirboy-like for my liking, especially when one considers that this role was written for the celebrated castrato Senesino, who reportedly had a clear contralto voice and could "thunder out" divisions. Davies's voice sounds a bit like Drew Minter's, an American countertenor who was very active back in the nineties. I wasn't a fan of his voice and, while Davies has a little more colour in his voice, I can't help but notice some similarities.
By contrast, Derek Lee Ragin sounds far more virile and involved in the rival Jacobs recording.
That said, he gets round the florid phrases without difficulty - it's a problem with power rather than technique. Furthermore, his rendition of Guido's anguished "Amor, nel mio penar" is pretty good.
Summers is a stylish enough Teodata, but I don't feel that she gets her teeth into the flirtatious little girl that is the character. She seems to focus on the singing rather than the character she is actually portraying. Bernarda Fink does far better for Jacobs. Listen to wonderful way Fink turns the phrases in "Che colpa" (the mother of all wind-up arias!) to see what I mean.
Turning next to the sound quality, it's very good, especially given that it was recorded in a church. Plenty of detail comes through and it's quite close and immediate.
The orchestra is small but plays well. It does sound under-powered on occasions - but more of that later.
Next up is the pacing of the work.
The recitatives flow extremely well and sound very natural, although overall I think Jacobs paces the work with a slightly more skill.
Tempi are also pretty much spot-on throughout, although a bit more speed in one or two places wouldn't have gone amiss.
My main concern with Curnyn's approach to the work and with the set overall is that the humorous and tragic elements are not always sufficiently realised. The delicious naughtiness of Teodata's "Con un vezzo" and "Che colpa e la mia" are not brought out (although I've already indicated that this is largely the singer's fault) and the very witty tract of recitative leading up to Flavio's "Starvi accanto" also falls short. Indeed, some lines from this tract of recitative do not appear to have been recorded - follow the text in the booklet and you'll see what I mean.
Elsewhere, Davies hardly sounds horrified at learning that it was Lotario who assaulted his father (compare Ragin's reaction by contrast). His argument with Lotario leading up to their fight is pretty good but again not up to Jacobs' standard.
The scene in which Teodata and Vitige are finally caught out by the duped king is again better paced and acted under Jacobs.
The tragic moments sound more agonised under Jacobs - these moments just don't grip me in the same way here. While the big scene for Emilia and Guido in act three works pretty well, it's not really replicated elsewhere.
Furthermore, the small orchestra sometimes sound a little under-powered in the fast music - "Fato, tiranno" needs more oomph than we get here - witness Jacobs' full-throttle version by way of a contrast! Overall the strings of Ensemble 415 sound fuller and more attractive.
Jacobs' set is not without its faults - such as subtle liberties with the score/text and his tendency to add in extra sinfonias (mostly lifted from Arianna in Creta), as well as an arioso from Berenice that he inserts into Act 3. Fundamentally though, Jacobs and his more dramatically-aware cast simply get the measure of the work more fully. His set has numerous seemingly innocuous little touches, both in the instrumental playing and in the singing, that really bring the character of the music to life.
Perhaps if Jacobs' set wasn't around I'd be more welcoming to what is actually a very decent account of the opera, but as things stand Jacobs wins the day for me.