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Ottone, King of Italy (ETO at Hackney Empire, 18 October 2014)

Handel’s greatest? Certainly one of the best musically, if afflicted with a noodly plot.

Ottone: Clint wan der Linde 
Adelberto: Andrew Radley
Emireno: Grant Doyle
Teofane: Louise Kemeny
Gismonda: Gillian Webster
Matilda: Rosie Aldridge
Conductor: Jonathan Peter Kenny | Orchestra of ETO
Director: James Conway

This is the opera that introduced soprano Francesca Cuzzoni to England and remains famous due to the defenestration story (Falsa imagine was the aria she wasn’t happy with. Naturally Handel was right and it went on to make her a star). It’s one of those operas rife with false identities so it’s best to know the plot beforehand1. Last night Hackney Empire’s cute and anachronistic surtitle “machine” was out of order, but everybody’s diction had been good enough for me to understand what was going on.

Tonight the machine was back on, but with a hilariously – yet endearingly – old school plot synopsis. Before each aria there was a headline telling us the setting (ie, “a field of battle”, a cave by the sea etc.), or the situation (“that which was lost”, followed by “that which might be found”) as well as a short description of what the currently sung aria was about (ie, a wife and mother’s revenge on a tyrant, Ottone is disillusioned and thinks of death etc.). This was very handy, as, with the notable exception of Rosie Aldridge, everybody else’s diction was lacking. The worst offender was Louise Kemeny, whom I could barely understand.

Diction quibble aside, it was very well sung. The best were, for me, Rosie Aldridge (Matilda) and Gillian Webster (Gismonda), who both started strong and stayed that way. Their Act II duet, Notte cara2, was the highlight of the evening for me and by then the rest of the audience had caught up and they received lots of applause. It’s always great hearing a mezzo and soprano duet. But before that, Gillian Webster had the misfortune to lead the proceedings and her fist two arias flew by without applause. That was not right, let me assure you. Sometimes I didn’t understand people’s hesitation to applaud some very technically accomplished and intelligent singing coupled with lovely, distinctive tones as these two singers have. Webster is also one of those singers whose speaking and singing voices are slightly different, the singing one being by far the more pleasant one – plump, penetrating and secure. Also without applause went Grant Doyle’s (Emireno) Del minacciar del vento. It’s not that often that you get bass arias in Baroque and such good ones too. Doyle has a heroic tone and he coped well with the descending coloratura. He was also very convincing as a “corsair”. Aldridge and Webster, too, showed excellent acting skills; their characters’ personalities shone through, both physically and vocally. Aldridge’s Diresti poi cosi, where Matilda wrestles with conflicting emotions (love and the desire for revenge) came off particularly powerful, as she was able to vocally depict these different emotions.

Though good singers on their own, I had some trouble telling Clint van der Linde’s (Ottone) and Andrew Radley’s (Adelberto) voices apart, as the both of them reminded me of David Daniels. They found their groove after the intermission and did very well with soulful arias. It took me a while to warm up to Louise Kemeny’s Teofane, which might be due to more than just her poor diction. Normally I don’t care so much about diction but I had a hard time understanding the recitatives and they were in English (as was the whole thing, btw. Like ENO’s, ETO’s operas are sung in English). I’m also more of a bravura aria fan and it takes Teofane a couple of acts to get something beside very lyrical passages. She did, however, do a very good job with her anguished aria, with some neat vocal acting amidst the coloratura.

It was a traditional setting but it wasn’t the worse for it. I’m not hellbent against traditional productions if they are beautiful and work, which this was. I’m actually quite fond of Byzantine art so I was pleased with the panels. They stayed the same during the entire opera and were moved this way and that depending on what the scene was supposed to show. The cave scene worked well with the fringe curtain behind and the blue lighting suggesting water. Also, the modern acting – often very physical, with good fight scenes – didn’t make it feel old fashioned.

The orchestra sounded beautiful and the conductor did a very good job with the score tonight. The tempi were just right and the orchestra supported the singers throughout. See it if you can (here are the tour dates and locations).

  1. Long story short: in Rome, Adelberto, the son of Berengario, ex-King of Italy, wants the throne. However, Ottone, the King of Germany, has defeated his father and is on his way to Rome to claim the throne. Whilst he’s been held back by battle business, his bride, the Byzantine princess Teofane, arrives in Rome. Gismonda, Adelberto’s scheming mother, suggests to him that he should introduce himself to Teofane as Ottone and thus marry her before Ottone has the chance. To complicate matters, Adelberto is betrothed to Ottone’s cousin, Matilda, who, naturally, does not like the turn of events. After other complications, Emireno, a captured pirate, turns out to be Teofane’s exiled brother. It takes us three acts to untangle the plot. 
  2. All aria titles are in Italian as I don’t know what they are in English.