English Touring Opera must rank as the foremost promoter of opera for the masses in this country. For the last 35 years they have trod the boards at regional theatres across the country, bringing good quality opera at affordable rates for connoisseurs and the curious alike.
This production of Handel’s opera Ottone is, however, something of a gamble that doesn’t quite pay off. Part of the problem is the opera itself. Although a great success when first presented at the King’s Theatre in London in 1723, it is bedevilled by an even more complex-than-usual plot. In addition, the characterization of its six principals is uneven. Indeed, Ottone’s commercial success at the time was mainly due to the stellar cast assembled for the premiere – among them the castrati Senesino and Gaetano Berenstadt, prima donna Francesca Cuzzoni and Handel stalwart Margherita Durastanti.
In brief, the plot concerns, Ottone (Otto), the German ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, who travels to Rome to marry his Byzantine bride, Teofane. They are prevented from meeting by the machinations of the Italian usurper Adelberto and his domineering mother, Gismonda. The would-be lovers are eventually united following a series of mishaps, including jealous intrigues by Ottone’s sister Matilda, Teofane’s kidnap by Adelberto, her rescue by her (hitherto disguised) brother Emireno, and several failed attempts at murder and suicide.
James Conway’s new production attempts to place some order on this confusion, but ends up by adding to it. Handel set the opera in Rome, but Conway’s sets and costumes (designed by Takis) relocate it to Constantinople. A frescoed church apse (split in two halves, and then further sub-divided into three sections) suggests the exoticism of the Eastern empire, as well as its ‘Byzantine’ complexities and intrigues. The apse’s boiler-like copper exterior hints at the high-pressure politics within. Clever lighting by Lee Curran further heightens the atmosphere, particularly in the night-time garden and cave scenes in Act II.
There are some strong performances, especially from the female members of the company. Gillian Webster stands out as the haughty, ruthless but also maternal Gismonda. Her singing of ‘Vieni, o figlio’ (in an English translation by Conway and Andrew Porter sadly lost on the audience thanks to the Hackney Empire’s malfunctioning surtitles) was beautifully delivered and genuinely moving. Rosie Aldridge makes for a steely, firm-voiced Matilda, while Louise Kemeny is an attractive, if rather drippy, Teofane. The opera is less well served by the men. Andrew Radley’s Abalberto is appropriately sly and shifty, but neither his voice nor Clint van der Linde’s as Ottone carried enough volume or flexibility, As Elmireno, Grant Doyle has a rich, commanding bass, but his extended recitative passages in the final act descended rather alarmingly into mere spoken declamation.
The opera was well conducted by an enthusiastic Jonathan Peter Kenny. The light forces of The Old Street Band occasionally sounded a little thin, and there was the odd downward swoon on the violins. But overall they provided a fine accompaniment, and came into their own during moments of high drama, and in a bouncily paced overture.