Ottone was the first new opera written by Handel for the Royal Academy of Music in London. It is rarely performed nowadays, although it features beautiful melancholic arias, heart-wrenching melodies, furious coloratura, and a very confusing plot: all the tools of the Master. The plot is inspired from historical events: the power struggle in Rome between the Holy Roman Emperor, the German Otto, and the Italian king Adelberto. In the fiction of the opera, they are also love rivals, both aspiring for the hand of Princess Teofane. Gismonda, Adelberto's mother, is the typical ambitious harpy-dominatrix, who tries to advance her status in life through the political success of her son (see Handel's Agrippina). The cast is completed by Emireno, Teofane's brother, and Matilda, a former love interest of Adelberto's, who ends up marrying him for the inevitable happy ending.

Ann Hallenberg © Örjan Jakobsson
Ann Hallenberg
© Örjan Jakobsson

At the concert performance at the Theater an der Wien, the singers performed in isolation: each stayed on stage just long enough to sing their lines, and each aria was sung with only the singer on stage, even if the text addressed another character. The attempts at acting were very limited, and for the most part restricted to Ann Hallenberg's performance as Gismonda. In general, the singers kept their heads in the score, which gave the impression of limited rehearsal time (Hallenberg even came in at the wrong moment during a recitative with Dilyara Idrisova's Teofane). This gave a detached, almost abstract quality to the performance, challenging the singers to find ways to be engaging despite the constant reading. Some were more successful than others.

Hallenberg was the only one who truly managed to make her character come alive, with communicative facial expressions and a wonderful rendition of "Trema tiranno", where she lashed out harpy-like, in true prima donna fashion. Her "Vieni, o figlio" was the highlight of the evening: an interpretation full of emotion with masterful phrasing, based on a voice which is still extraordinarily agile and displayed great legato.

Xavier Sabata and Pavel Kudinov, as Adelberto and Emireno respectively, also made some effort at acting. Sabata delivered an exciting and powerful "Tu puoi straziarmi", with beautiful coloratura. He was also convincing in the slow, tender arias, although his voice tended to be a bit one-dimensional in the melancholic parts. Kudinov's bass was extremely effective: a strong voice, well set on the breath, agile and smooth. His sense of phrasing was admirable in the aria "No, non temere o bella". He was the singer who needed the score the least.

Max Emanuel Cenčić, as Ottone, was unfortunately not as successful a communicator. His countertenor was not so strong, and his projection could have been better, which added to the sense of aloofness and distance in his performance. He often kept his eyes closed, resting them on the score when they were open, which made it seem as if he never looked up. Nevertheless, his coloratura was perfect, and his delivery was stylish and extremely elegant.

Dilyara Idrisova's performance as Teofane was highly acclaimed. Her soprano was incredibly easy on the high notes, with a beautiful golden colour. The seamless passaggio, tasteful phrasing, and strong coloratura made her performance thoroughly enjoyable, although she could improve her interpretation skills. Anna Starushkevych sang the role of Matilda. It was announced at the beginning that she was suffering from a cold; nevertheless, she came through. Her voice sounded high for the part, but it's hard to judge, as she was not in top form.

Il pomo d'oro, under the baton of George Petrou, was arguably the star of the evening. Petrou has a beautiful gesture; he conducted with his hands and his breathing alike, and it's a pleasure to watch. He, as always, had a bit of a heavy hand on the bass section, the cellos and double bass sounded percussive at times, but overall the orchestra showed a remarkable range of dynamics and nuances, always within the boundaries of a precise and stylish Baroque performance. The continuo was excellent: Ludovico Minasi at the cello and Theodoris Kistos at the theorbo were a perfect match to an amazing Federica Bianchi, whose cembalo playing was consistently imaginative and inspired.

***11