Captivating Production of Handel’s Ottone from English Touring Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Ottone: English Touring Opera, The Old Street Band, Jonathan Peter Kenny (conductor), Snape Maltings, Snape, 15.11.2014 (CS)

Image Credit Richard Hubert Smith
Image Credit Richard Hubert Smith

Gismonda – Gillian Webster
Adelberto – Andrew Radley
Ottone – Clint van der Linde
Matilde – Rosie Aldridge
Teofane – Louise Kemeny
Emireno – Johnny Herford

Direction: James Conway
Designs: takis
Lighting Designs: Lee Curran

Set in and around Rome c. 970, Handel’s opera seria, Ottone, has its fair share of narrative absurdities and non sequiturs: sisters who do not recognise their brothers, false identities, incomprehensible misunderstandings and maniacal jealousies, and such like.

Ottone is to marry the Byzantine princess, Teofane, but the ship which is bringing her to Italy is attacked by pirates.  Ottone takes the assailants prisoner, while his bride-to-be travels onwards to Rome, where she is met by Gismonda and her son, who have carried out a coup d’état and now pretend to be Ottone and his mother.  As the new Emperor, Ottone returns to Rome and takes the dissidents captive, Teofane is increasingly isolated and confused.  Who/where is her betrothed?  Ottone’s sister, Matilde, torn between her loyalty to her sibling and her love for the perfidious Adelberto, wavers between allegiance to Ottone and treason; eventually her infatuation overwhelms her and she assists Adelberto in his dastardly plot – he, and the pirate Emireno will abduct Teofane and flee.  But, a storm disrupts the master-plan and in the ensuing confusion, Emireno – in reality, Teofane’s brother who was forced by usurpers into exile and compelled to adopt a fictitious identity – recognises his sister. Several more reversals and betrayals ensue, before Teofane intervenes to prevent tragedy, foiling Gismonda’s attempt to slay herself.  All are eventually reconciled, vowing new love, strengthened by previous suffering.

The director of this English Touring Opera production, James Conway, has sensibly decided not to try to inject dramatic ‘realism’ through the invention of busy stage activity or the imposition of a ‘concept’, electing instead to allow Handel’s glorious music to speak for itself.  The extent and diversity of the human emotions, both extreme and raw, that are encapsulated by Handel are thus unadorned and delivered with directness: Affekt without affection.

And, there are no surtitles: instead, authentically stylised prefatory statements – ‘in which the mother laments her filial loss’, and such like – introduce each recitative-aria stage of the drama (although perhaps, in the light of the generally poor diction, a few more textual clarifications of the kind offered in the closing few numbers might have been useful).

The sets and costumes by takis [sic] are stunning and beguiling.  Curving portions of an elaborate, gilded Byzantine cupola, adorned with jewel-encrusted mosaics, swivel gracefully in a dance-like partnership with rounded edifices of burnished copper suggestive of the fortresses of war.  The gleaming gold and emerald, lapis lazuli and aquamarine surfaces and fabrics, shimmer under the sporadic intensity of the impressive lighting design (Lee Curran); and shadows are as important as light, as is most powerfully redolent during the water-side cave scene in which all the characters appear, unseen by each other, to pour out their emotions in the misty gloom.  If at times the characters seem to disappear into the shadowy recesses, this might be understood as suggestive of their confusion and struggle to understand their true ‘selves’, a struggle inferred by the enticing but mysterious dappled light which shines through the holes in the domes during the grotto scene.

For the first performance of Ottone at the King’s Theatre Haymarket on 12 January 1723, Handel assembled a cast of operatic ‘superstars’, including the internationally renowned castrati Senesino and Gaetano Berenstadt in the roles of Ottone and Adelberto respectively.  Indeed, given the rivalries between the performers both in real life and within the drama which they enacted, the opera might perhaps have been subtitled ‘the battle of the castratri’; but, in fact, it is the female characters who seem to have most stimulated Handel’s expressivity and his instinct for dramatic and musical characterisation and differentiation.

Here, Louise Kemeny’s Teofane was a touching embodiment of bewildered purity and fearful desire. Kemeny’s Act 1 entrance aria – in which Teofane expresses her confusion at her predicament and accuses the portrait previously given to her of Ottone, her betrothed, of cruel deception, was both tenderly vulnerable and suggestive of an inner core of strength: pathos personified.  In Act 2, when she realises that she has been duped by Adelberto, Kemeny’s siciliana-like aria had a beautiful sense of line, her melody soaring with crystalline clarity, exquisitely ornamented.

As Matilde, Rosie Aldridge encompassed a wide gamut of emotions, from hatred to love, vengeance to regret, as she struggled to reconcile her love for Adelberto with fury at his treachery.  One of the highlights of the evening was Gismonda’s Act 2 aria expressing her immense material devotion and desire to console Adelberto, in which Gillian Webster summoned noteworthy expressiveness to present us with a mother’s unconditional love, thereby tempering our judgement of Gismonda’s ruthless ambition as previously exhibited.  Webster wove a lucid soprano line here, and also in her wonderful duet with Matilde at the close of Act 2, when the two women misguidedly celebrate the success of their plan to free son and lover, Adelberto.

Ottone is rather weakly defined in a dramatic sense, and countertenor Clint van der Linde used his powerful projection and vibrant tone to give the somewhat unheroic protagonist presence and stature.  Andrew Radley’s Adelberto was dramatically vivacious, both beguiling and repulsive, and Grant Doyle made much of his single aria, as Emireno, where his focused tone and unclouded baritone warmth suggested his sincerity and openness.

From the first bars of the tripartite French overture, conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny danced and swayed with great animation in the pit: indeed, during the course of the evening he practically performed a one-man opéra-ballet.  Such enthusiasm was clearly invigorating for the instrumentalists of the Old Street Band who played with fleetness and buoyancy.  But, Kenny’s hands, sweeping and circling high in the air and intruding when the characters lay low on the stage, were at times distracting.  The was some very fine cello playing from Kinga Gaborjani, whose accompaniment of the recitatives, with theorbo player Jadran Duncum, was a master-class in tasteful, responsive musicianship.

Ottone was a tremendous success in Handel’s day, receiving numerous revivals and earning accolades for Handel and its interpreters alike; the musicologist and cultural commentator Charles Burney remarked that ‘the number of songs in this opera that became national favourites was perhaps greater than in any other that was ever performed in England’.  Conway and English Touring Opera offered a captivating production of high musical and artistic standards, one which will hopefully inspire others to follow their lead.

Claire Seymour


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