Premiered at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in January 1723, Ottone was the first Handel opera to pair his star draws of the 1720s: the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, making her London debut as Teofane, and the castrato Senesino in the title-role. Both were singers with attitude. But they met their match in Handel, who reputedly threatened to throw Cuzzoni out of the window until she agreed to quell her prima donna’s vanity and sing Teofane’s simple and touching opening aria ‘Falsa imagine’. Ironically, the aria made Cuzzoni’s London reputation as a soprano without equal in the ‘pathetic’ style. Centring on the attempts of the scheming matriarch Gismonda and her unlovely son Adelberto to prevent King Ottone from marrying the Byzantine Princess Teofane and assuming his rightful throne, Ottone’s pseudo-historical libretto is often hopelessly confused. This evidently mattered not a jot to Handel’s audiences. The combination of Senesino, Cuzzoni and Handel’s melodic fertility (Charles Burney reported that many of the arias soon became ‘national favourites’) made Ottone an instant success. With a total of 36 performances over five seasons, it was eclipsed in popularity only by Rinaldo during his lifetime.
These days Ottone ranks well down the Handel pecking order, not least because of the plot’s muddles and absurdities. On CD, though, it has fared relatively well, with two period-instrument versions appearing in quick succession from Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi, 3/93) and Robert King (Hyperion, 7/93). Both do the opera fair justice. But this new version, recorded in the sympathetic acoustic of the Villa San Fermo in the Veneto, easily surpasses them in consistency of casting and dramatic flair. Without pressing the tempos unduly (except when dancing on hot coals in the Overture’s fugue), George Petrou draws rhythmically animated, sensitively coloured playing from the crack Italian band. Abetted by an alert, unfussy continuo, recitatives are lively and naturally paced, though not even Petrou and his singers can save the final denouement from blink-and-you-miss-it perfunctoriness.
The cast is uniformly strong. Ottone is more mooning lover than strutting hero, always ready to buckle in a crisis. But Max Emanuel Cencic, with his unusually powerful, sensuous countertenor, rescues him from self-regarding wimpishess. He sings his tender opening siciliano and Act 3 lament ‘Dove sei?’ with intense beauty of line and tone, always responsive to the text, and throws off his bravura arias with unforced brilliance. As the patiently suffering (even by Baroque opera standards) heroine, the American soprano Lauren Snouffer has a warmer, richer voice than either of her CD rivals and a nimble coloratura technique. With a mezzo glint in her tone, she catches well the passionate undercurrents of Teofane’s music, whether in ‘Falsa imagine’, her yearning plea for peace ‘Affanni dei pensier’ or the nocturnal garden scena in Act 3. Some may find her quick vibrato slightly disconcerting in Handel, though I soon got used to it.
Gismonda’s inconsistently drawn character, veering between ruthless ambition and blithe exuberance, is softened by the lulling ‘Vieni, o figlio’, an exquisite outpouring of maternal love. Ann Hallenberg, always a superb Handelian, sings this with musing inwardness, using delicate ornamentation to enhance the intensity of the da capo. Elsewhere she musters all the imperiousness and, in the splenetic ‘Trema, tiranno’, venom that the matriarch’s music demands. In the role of Matilda, in love with the contemptible Adelberto in spite of herself, mezzo Anna Starushkevych sings with sensitivity and (in her fiery denunciation of Ottone) plenty of temperament, though her coloratura can be bumpy. Xavier Sabata, as Adelberto, is mellifluous in his quieter, lyrical music but tends to hoot when spitting out defiance in ‘Tu puoi straziarmi’. Eschewing mere bluster, bass-baritone Pavel Kudinov sings with fine, clean resonance and impressive agility – a hint of tenderness, too, in his final aria – as the jolly pirate Emireno, who eventually turns out to be Teofane’s brother in disguise (don’t question the maths – this is opera seria).
Despite minor provisos, this new recording is emphatically the version to have of an opera whose dramatic flaws are redeemed by magnificent individual scenes and any number of good tunes. It is also more complete than its rivals, including, as David Vickers explains in an informative note, all the music heard at the 1723 premiere plus two new arias added for Cuzzoni’s benefit night later that season and, as an appendix, three numbers Handel composed for Senesino when he revived Ottone in 1726.