Sunday 2 October 2022

Far more than a musical curiosity: fine musical drama in ETO's revival of Handel's Ottone

Handel: Ottone - Nazan Fikret - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Ottone - Nazan Fikret - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Handel: Ottone; Elizabeth Karani, Nazan Fikret, Lauren Young, James Hall, Kieron-Connor Valentine, Edward Jowle, director: James Conway, conductor: Gerry Cornelius; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed 1 October 2022 (★★★★)

Handel's rarely performed Ottone in a revival of James Conway's imaginative and rather beautiful production with a cast who engage us from the outset and take us on a real emotional journey

English Touring Opera's Autumn season launched on Saturday (1 October 2022) with a revival of James Conway's production of Handel's Ottone at the Hackney Empire. This Autumn season is Conway's farewell to the company, as he steps down as artistic director, and the season is a celebration of one of the company's strengths, performances of Baroque opera with three of Conway's Handel productions being featured including a new production of Tamerlano

And don't forget that the company isn't just about performing Baroque operas, rare bel canto, Mozart and later classics, it is about touring as well. For the Autumn season seven venues across England will see some or all of the programme. During Conway's 20 something years at the helm of English Touring Opera there have been a remarkable number of operas by Handel and other Baroque composers, all taken round England in a way that no other company can emulate.

James Conway's production of Handel's Ottone was revived by Christopher Moon Little. The Old Street Band was conducted by Gerry Cornelius, ETO's music director. Designs were by takis and lighting was by Tim van't Hof. Gillian Webster was due to sing the role of Gismonda, however owing to illness her place was taken by Elizabeth Karani; evidently this happened at short notice, but Karani performed the role on stage and gave little evidence of her assumption being last-minute. Kieron-Connor Valentine was Adelberto, James Hall was Ottone, Lauren Young as Matilda, Nazan Fikret was Teofane and Edward Jowle was Emireno.

Handel: Ottone - James Hall - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Ottone - James Hall - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Handel wrote Ottone in 1723 for what was perhaps the finest cast yet assembled in England, the castrato Senesino (Ottone), soprano Francesca Cuzzoni (Teofane), alto castrato Gaetano Berenstadt (Adelberto) and soprano Margherita Durastantini (Gismonda). 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 recent 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 can seem to us to be pathetic in the modern sense.

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, and Conway's production was about each character's journey rather than worrying about naturalistic detail of the narrative. It is also about familiar relations, that between Ottone and Matilda, where she was betrothed to his enemy Adelberto and is still attracted to the man despite everything, and that between Adelberto and Gismonda, in many ways the mother from hell.

It perhaps helped that ETO performed a cut version of the opera with around 150 minutes of music (Robert King's recording on Hyperion lasts 174 minutes) with Conway and Peter Jones (who was responsible for the edition) pruning the opera discreetly. This meant, I think, that James Hall'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 were 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, light shone through holes in the tops of the structures to create magically dappled shade. The result was simple, striking, magical and highly portable. 

Handel: Ottone - Lauren Young - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Ottone - Lauren Young - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

The plot involved the Emperor Ottone, James Hall, (a character based on a genuine tenth century Holy Roman Emperor) and his betrothed the Byzantine princess Teofane (Nazan Fikret) who has just arrived and not met him yet, Ottone has been busy capturing the pirate Emireno (Edward Jowle). In Rome, Adelberto (Kieron-Connor Valentine) and his mother Gismonda (Elizabeth Karani) stage a coup and Adelberto pretends to be Ottone so he can marry Teofane, to her confusion. Ottone is alerted by his sister Mathilde (Lauren Young) and the wedding is prevented. Mathilde has been betrothed to Adelberto, Teofane sees Mathilde and Ottone together, mistakes them for lovers, and flees.

Adelberto and Emireno escape and end up in a grotto with Teofane (described in the libretto as 'A Garden and Prospect of the Tiber, and Fountains and Grottos, in one of which leads a Subterranean 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 - back to James Conway's fairy-tale. 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 was of a very high order. By concentrating on the individual emotional journeys, we became less worried about dramatic plausibility and more engaged with each of the characters. The opera also has some intriguing musical features, not only a duet (in the grotto) between two opposing characters, Gismonda (Elizabeth Karani) and Matilda (Lauren Young) who temporarily find common purpose, but also the moment in the first half when Ottone (James Hall) captured Adelberto (Kieron-Connor Valentine) and Hall took over the second half of Valentine's aria. Handel's writing for the scenes in the grotto and for the later shipwreck bring out an element in his writing which becomes almost Romantic!

Handel: Ottone - Edward Jowle, Nazan Fikret - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Ottone - Edward Jowle, Nazan Fikret - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

James Hall made a fine, upstanding Ottone; it helped that he looked the part, and the 'pathetic' element came out as stoicism rather than him being simply a drip. Hall sang his faster passages with great verve which brought a more active feeling to the character and was highly sympathetic in the more melancholy elements. Hall is also singing Andronico in the new production of Tamerlano, and I am now looking forward to this greatly.

Nazan Fikret made a delicate seeming Teofane. Subject to much yet always surviving, Fikret might have drooped elegantly and effectively in her 'pathetic' arias, but she engaged us musically and suggested Teofane had stoic qualities of her own, underneath. Fikret had an engaging way with her music and always held the stage even when not being very positive, a fine performance indeed.

Kieron-Connor Valentine was wonderfully oily as Adelberto, successfully suggesting the character's dodgy nature and making Teofane's lack of trust in him completely believable. Valentine combined this weaselly element to the character with a fine approach to the music, there was much to enjoy.

Gismonda was written for Margherita Durastantini, one of Handel's longest collaborators (they first worked together in Rome in 1707) and evidently a fine singing actress. Gismonda goes through a whole variety of emotions; yes, she is pushy and manipulative, but she loves her son and her moment in the grotto almost makes her sympathetic. But not for long, and towards the end of the opera she was back taunting Ottone, until Adelberto is brought in captive by Emireno. Throughout this, Elizabeth Karani was mesmerising, great beauty of tone softening the edge of the character, but with Karani still keeping Gismonda's wonderful killer instincts. Definitely the mother from hell.

Lauren Young brought out Matilda's conflicted nature, the way that wonderful vehemence alternated with doubt and affection for the weaselly Adelberto. That she still love's such an unimpressive character was balanced by Young's sheer vividness in depicting the character, this Matilda was strong minded indeed. Young gave us an active, highly dramatic performance of this conflicted character and made us sit up when she sang.

Emireno is a small role, but important. A pirate captured by Ottone, he is involved in Adelberto's escape where Teofane is caught up too. Eventually brother and sister recognise each other, thus tying things up neatly and when we have the final coro, there are thus multiple pairings, Ottone is betrothed to Teofane, Ottone & Matilda are siblings, Teofane & Emireno are siblings, Matilda is betrothed to Adelberto, and Gismonda is Adelberto's mother. The sort of neat tying up of ends that the 18th century dramatists loved. Edward Jowle managed to make Emireno a rough diamond, and brought a believable element to the fairy tale. Like many such roles in Handel, there was rather too little for Jowle to get his teeth into, but this was his principal debut with ETO (he had previously sung in the chorus in 2017) and I look forward to hearing him do more.

In the pit, Gerry Cornelius and the Old Street Band (ETO's period instrument ensemble, founded in 2011) gave us a strong account of the score. Cornelius kept things moving, keeping the music pacey and not allowing yawning gaps, so that the drama rattled long just with pauses for the arias in a way which felt right, and well paced.

The opera was sung in English (translated by Andrew Porter and James Conway) and whilst everything was not comprehensible, a lot was and with the help of the short summaries in the surtitles we could follow via the singers' words rather than listening to music whilst reading the plot via the surtitles.

Handel: Ottone - Kieron-Connor Valentine, Edward Jowle, James Hall, Nazran Fikret - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Ottone - Kieron-Connor Valentine, Edward Jowle, James Hall, Nazran Fikret - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

The best tribute I can make to performers and production was that it grabbed us from the beginning and held our attention throughout with a sense of vividness to the performance and real development of character. You wanted to know who these people were and why. Ottone is not the greatest of Handel's operas, but he was a fine musical dramatist and ETO showed that the opera is deserving of its place on the stage, rather than simply being something of a curiosity.

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