The premiere of Ottone on 12 January 1723 inaugurated what proved to be a very successful year for Handel. By its close he had moved into his own house on Brook Street where he set about completing the score of what was to become Giulio Cesare. Like Handel’s other operas, Ottone was never performed again until renewed interest in baroque opera seria in the later twentieth century led to a handful of performances and one excellent recording, but it has been overshadowed by the popularity of its close neighbours Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda, which were all composed in a burst of extraordinary creativity between mid-1723 and January 1725. In its day, however, Ottone was phenomenally successful, and it received four revivals within a decade – remarkable in an age notable for its insatiable appetite for new compositions. A sure sign of its popularity are the numerous reports of badly behaved crowds, be it overenthusiastic footmen in the upper galleries or the duel at the ninth performance between ‘a Scotch Nobleman and an English Baronet’, which was only stopped by the arrest of both combatants.
Part of the opera’s success – and no doubt the accompanying high passions – was due to the debut of a long awaited arrival. As early as October 1722 the London Journal had reported that a ‘Mrs Costona, an extraordinary Italian singer…is expected daily from Italy’. ‘Mrs Costona’ was of course Francesca Cuzzoni, who went on to create some of Handel’s finest soprano roles of the 1720s. Handel rewrote much of the score of Ottone in anticipation of Cuzzoni’s debut as Teofane, adding several first-rate arias and duets that make the present revival so welcome.
Capturing the original? Image: www.englishtouringopera.org.uk
Yet Ottone is not an opera without its challenges. For all its stylistic elegance the libretto is an unhappy compression of that used for Antonio Lotti’s Teofane, and while Haym retained the scope of the narrative he omitted much of the supporting context with the result that sudden plot changes are left unexplained. Last week’s performance overcame this difficulty, and one of its greatest achievements was the sense of momentum it gave to the narrative, through the recitatives as much as the arias. James Conway’s belief in the dramatic potential of the score paid dividends, and it was so refreshing to see a director treat the recitatives with the attention and gravity they deserve instead of filling them with gimmicks intended to sustain the audience’s attention. Here was proof recitatives need not be boring.
For the most part this momentum was converted in the arias. The standout performance was Gillian Webster, a Handel veteran, as Gismonda. Mother of the treacherous Adelberto, Gismonda is the most complex character in the opera, and Webster adapted her versatile voice to the diverse music written for the part. Her lively cadenzas in the triumphalist opening aria ‘La speranza è giunta in porto’ were as successful as the affective sorrow of ‘Vieni, o figlio’, or ‘Come my beloved son’. Here Handel halts the rapid advance of the second act, and gives Gismonda a period for reflection in which her unconditional love for her condemned son, so far hidden by pride, pours out in a melody of haunting beauty. I must also mention the most enjoyable number of the evening, the ever pleasing duet ‘Notte cara’/’Darkness falling’ which concludes Act 2, which was stylishly delivered by Webster and Rosie Aldridge (Matilda).
Cuzzoni’s shoes were filled by Louise Kemény, a recent graduate with distinction from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, whose light, clear sound served her well in bringing out the innocence and naivety underscoring her famous first aria, ‘Falsa immagine’/’Image clear and bright’ – that aria, so the legendary anecdote goes, that Cuzzoni only agreed to sing after Handel’s threat of defenestration. Perhaps less successful was her rendition of ‘Affanni del pensier’/’Alone in lonely grief’, which demands darker, heavier colours to deliver its full impact, but I look forward to hearing Kemény’s voice develop more hues over the coming years.
My major quibble was with the English text. The broad arguments for and against translation are well rehearsed, but in this particular case singing in English was more of a hindrance, preventing good singers from unlocking the full dramatic potential of some of the arias. On numerous occasions the clear, crisp sounds of the Italian original were replaced by a muffled English text which denied passages of coloratura their power, and even left phrases difficult to decipher. Surely it is counterintuitive to translate an opera in the name of accessibility only to lose the audience in periods of indecipherable diction? Seeing that screens were used to add context to the narrative, subtitles wouldn't have been too much to ask.
The Old Street Band’s judicious approach was consistently good and at times excellent, although in other instances one felt that looser playing would have helped the singers carry off difficult arias. While the standard was consistently high, with notable individual performances, only occasionally did everything come together at the same time (combined with a serviceable translation). Somewhat frustratingly, therefore, it was no lack of talent or ability that kept this very good production just shy of being an excellent one, and I suspect that, even if the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts, Ottone has many dramatic tricks left up its sleeve.