Monday, 20 October 2014

Handel's Ottone at English Touring Opera

Louise Kemeny (Teofane), Gillian Webster (Gismonda), Rosie Aldridge (Matilda), Andrew Radley (Adelberto), Grant Doyle (Emireno), Clint van der Linde (Ottone), English Touring Opera // Handel, Ottone. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Louise Kemeny, Gillian Webster, Rosie Aldridge, Andrew Radley,
Grant Doyle, Clint van der Linde,Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Handel Ottone; English Touring Opera, dir. Conway, cond. Kenny; Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 18 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Stylish and convincing revival of a Handel rarity

For its Autumn 2014 tour, English Touring Opera (ETO) returned to the 18th century with operas by Handel and Haydn, and a programme of Bach cantatas. The Handel's opera, Ottone, was a real rarity, and we saw the opening of the production at the Hackney Empire on Saturday 18 October 2014 with Clint van der Linde as Ottone, Louise Kemeny as Teofane, Andrew Radley as Adalberto, Gillian Webster as Gismonda, Rosie Aldridge as Mathilde and Grant Doyle as Emireno. The production was directed by James Conway, artistic director of English Touring Opera, in designs by takis with lighting by Lee Curran. Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted the Old Street Band.

Handel wrote Ottone in 1723 for what was perhaps the finest cast yet assembled in England, the castrato Senesino, star soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, alto castrato Gaetano Berenstadt and soprano Margherita Durastantini. It was Cuzzoni's first opera for Handel and it was enormously successful, not only receiving a goodly number of performances but also being revived regularly and even being taken to Paris.

This success has puzzled many commentators. The opera's libretto is based on one by Pallavicino written for Dresden and set by Antonio Lotti in 1719. But it was subjected to some severe compression by Handel and his librettist Nicola Haym. The final act in particular seems, on paper, to not make sense. Another problem with the opera is that the title role, Ottone, is so wet and passive as to be almost a dim-wit. Senesino, who sang Ottone, specialised in pathetic roles (in the 18th century in the sense 'affecting the emotions') but Ottone seems to us pathetic in the modern sense.

Louise Kemeny (Teofane), English Touring Opera // Handel, Ottone. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Louise Kemeny - Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
The great virtue James Conway's Handel productions from ETO is that he takes the operas seriously and tries to make them work as a stage piece. In the programme book of Ottone Conway talked about what drew him to the opera, the remarkable scene in act two in the grotto/cave where each character become more themself and Conway twice uses the concept of a fairy-tale. Ottone is not naturalistic, but tells a greater truth.

It perhaps helped that ETO performed a cut version of the opera with 150 minutes of music (the Robert King's recording on Hyperion lasts 174 minutes) which meant that Conway and Peter Jones (who was responsible for the edition) could prune the opera discreetly. This meant, I think, that Clint van der Linde's Ottone lost some of his droopier arias which reduced the character's prominence but benefited the opera's dramatic coherence.

The designs by takis were simple but glorious. The stage was a box, with blue curtained walls. Within this three structures, sections of cylinders with curved tops so that two could come together as an apse, the interior of which had elaborate 'mosaics' inspired by the Byzantine ones in Ravenna. The outer skins were dark copper, so with the structures turned round the stage picture changed. For the grotto scene the light shone through holes in the tops of the structures to create magically dappled shade.

Clint van der Linde (Ottone), English Touring Opera // Handel, Ottone. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Clint van der Linde, photo Richard Hubert Smith
The plot involved the Emperor Ottone, Clint van der Linde, (a character based on a genuine tenth century Holy Roman Emperor) and his betrothed the Byzantine princess Teofane (Louise Kemeny) who has just arrived and not met him yet, Ottone has been busy capturing the pirate Emireno (Grant Doyle). In Rome, Adalberto (Andrew Radley) and his mother Gismonda (Gillian Webster) stage a coup and Adalberto pretends to be Ottone so he can marry Teofane, to her confusions. Ottone is alerted by his sister Mathilde (Rose Aldridge) and the wedding is prevented. Mathilde has been betrothed to Adalberto, Teofane sees Mathilde and Ottone together and mistakes them for lovers, and flees.

Adalberto and Emireno escape and end up in a grotto with Teofane (described in the libretto as 'A Garden and Prospect of the Tibner, and Fountains and Grottos, in one of which leads a Suberranean Passage, closed up with a Stone', though ETO refer to the location as a cave). In fact everyone ends up here at some time, stretching credulity but giving the work a rather mysterious quality. And of course, all is resolved in the end.

So, does it work? The music is of a very high order and, despite strictures from Winton Dean, does seem to be of a finely uniform quality. And the singing from all concerned was of a very high order, so that any critical discussion can revolve around the qualities the singer brought to role rather then their approach to Handel.  And somehow Conway and his cast also made it all come together as a more than viable dramatic entity. The strong characters were all the women.

Rosie Aldridge (Matilda), Gillian Webster (Gismonda), English Touring Opera // Handel, Ottone. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Rosie Aldridge, Gillian Webster, photo Richard Hubert Smith
Gillian Webster's Gismonda was a strong mother and related to Webster's performance as Handel's Agrippina for ETO last year (see my review). Webster clearly had a great time as such a vivid and rather vicious character. But Gismonda is modified by her love for her son and Webster gave us a wonderful account of this aria. Gismonda makes an unlikely alliance with Mathilde and the two had a stunning duet whilst alone in the grotto. Webster and Aldridge made this one of the evening highlights.

Mathilde was also a strong, almost Valkyrie-like character but again conflicted by her love for Adalberto. Rosie Aldridge was on terrific form and gave us a strongly sung and finely dramatic performance. In a musically strong evening, for me Aldridge gave us some of the finest Handel singing of the evening.

Teofane was less dramatic, she spent a lot of time being confused. Her lovely opening aria arose because Adalberto pretending to be Ottone does not resemble the picture she has. Louise Kemeny gave a poised account of this aria and throughout impressed with her musicality and the way she conveyed something of Teofane's underlying strength of purpose and character.

Grant Doyle (Emireno), Andrew Radley (Adelberto), English Touring Opera // Handel, Ottone. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Grant Doyle, Andrew Radley, photo Richard Hubert Smith
The two castrato roles, Ottone and Adalberto, sung her by counter-tenors Clint van der Linde and Andrew Radley, are both rather less strong characters. Clint van der Linde's soft grained voice brought out Ottone's rather pliant, reactive character though he did give fine account of Ottone's most bravura aria. At the end there was no showpiece from him, but a lovely duet with Kemeny's Teofane. Adalberto started out as apparently noble, and only showed his true colours later by kidnapping Teofane when he met her in he grotto. Andrew Radley gave a highly sympathetic account of Adalberto's music. So much so that he made us almost more sympathetic to him than Ottone.

Grant Doyle was suitable forthright and characterful as the pirate Emireno, who was revealed as Teofane's long lost brother (!) And Doyle gave a nicely vigorous account of Emireno's single aria.

The opera was sung in English (in Andrew Porter and James Conway's translation), though it has to be said that the cast's diction was a bit patchy, with Aldridge and Doyle winning the palm for getting the most words over.

Louise Kemeny (Teofane), English Touring Opera // Handel, Ottone. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Louise Kemeny, photo Richard Hubert Smith
We have little information about the sort of ornamentation applied to arias in Handel's day. A group of Teofane's arias survive with ornamentation added in what might be Handel's hand, albeit transposed down a fourth. These were used to inform Kemeny's ornamentation, generally kept within the compass of the part, without re-composing the melody but filling in gaps and increasing the no. of notes. The results were stylish and worked well.

In the pit Jonathan Peter Kenny and the Old Street Band (on period instruments) gave us a crisply lively account of the overture and continued with stylish and characterful playing.

I was very taken with Ottone. It isn't perfect (Handel would write Giulio Cesare in 1723 for performance in 1724 with the same performers with Sensesino and Cuzzoni in the leading roles). But certainly it is more than effective as drama, and with some very strong arias. James Conway and his cast gave us it all in a highly seductive and fascinating whole.

Handel's Ottone is on tour with Haydn's Life on the Moon and a programme of Bach cantatas until 23 November, see the English Touring Opera website.
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