In some operas, no matter how good the plot, it can all seem rather like it’s happening to one person. And in Ottone, Handel seems to direct every clever and cruel plot twist at Teofane, a beautiful Byzantine princess who we see suffering what can only be described as the worst day ever. Sent a portrait of the handsome Saxon king Ottone, she arrives full of excitement to marry him, only to find him (and his mother Adelaida) very different in the flesh: they are, in fact, Adelberto and Gismonda, imposters and Ottone’s enemies, trying to marry Teofane to secure her limitless gold for themselves.

Gillian Webster (Gismonda) © Richard Hubert Smith
Gillian Webster (Gismonda)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Escaping their clutches during an attack by Ottone, she comes across her real fiancé comforting his cousin (in this production, his sister) Matilda, whom Teofane takes to be his mistress, running off in tears – straight back into the grasp of her evil would-be suitor Adelberto, and the corsair Emireno, who enthusiastically take her prisoner. Tricked, betrayed, and feeling abandoned, Teofane is so upset that when Emireno turns out to be her long-lost brother Basilio in disguise, when Adelberto is defeated, and when she is finally united with Ottone, she can still hardly believe it. Her final line is something worthy about having “learnt a great deal by all this suffering” – one feels she is also not too far from an outburst of tears, or even hysterics. Handel really puts Teofane through the mill.

Ottone was a great success for Handel in his lifetime, and the ravishing beauty of its music and exciting, dynamic plot shows us why. The consistently high production values of English Touring Opera, who make opera always beautiful but relevantly so, without facile aestheticism, breathe glorious life into Ottone, with a wonderful set, stunning costumes (particularly for Teofane) and fabulous singing – it may sound a trite list, but this production really has all three. James Conway directs with sensitive skill, picking out the raw human feelings and tortured family dynamics with unerring accuracy. Baroque opera is full of extraordinary, stylised emotions, but they can also, as here, feel realistic and moving. The set designs by takis [sic], part gilded and separated Byzantine dome, part oversized copper and verdigris diving-bell, is simple and effective, glowing with jewel-like colours and the soft sheen of gold; the mysterious cave by the water in which all the characters appear, but remain hidden from each other while they pour out their hearts into the darkness, is superbly evoked with shimmering light and smoke.

Gillian Webster (Gismonda) and Louise Kemeny (Teofane) © Richard Hubert Smith
Gillian Webster (Gismonda) and Louise Kemeny (Teofane)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Jonathan Peter Kenny, conducting the Old Street Band, sets the music off in a vivacious mood which never falters. A positive sherbet of lovely ideas, Handel’s music as ever mixes a sense of elation with strains of deeper reflection, creating a mood at once playful and profound. Filled with rich, constantly evolving lines, Ottone is a satisfying and energising listen, exquisite in its arias and in ensemble moments (and duets, such as the gorgeous “Darkness falling” in Act II): some duets seem more like musical duels, as each melody tries to outdo the other in athletic, combative superlativism.

Louise Kemeny is exceptionally graceful and elegant throughout as Teofane, the Byzantine princess. Teofane has a set of stellar arias, among which “Image clear and bright” and “Alone in lonely grief” stood out for me, Kemeny singing with a sense of purity and fabulous ornamentation. Kemeny brings naive vulnerability to Teofane, making us feel anxious for her throughout. Clint van der Linde sang Ottone with wonderful relish and reach, despite a heavy cold (which was superbly controlled); also skilled at stage fighting, he impresses on every level, breathtaking in “So much sadness”.

Grant Doyle (Emireno) and Andrew Radley (Adelberto) © Richard Hubert Smith
Grant Doyle (Emireno) and Andrew Radley (Adelberto)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Gillian Webster is a redoubtable Gismonda, delivering her complex arias with complete mastery and style. Gismonda does not allow Webster as much scope as her wonderful title role portrayal of Handel’s Agrippina last year, but remains a manipulative mother to be reckoned with: her “Come, my son, return” is hauntingly soft. Andrew Radley gives us a believably petulant and immature Adelberto, disquietingly lascivious and inappropriate (kissing his mother on the mouth, sucking an appalled Teofane’s fingers), though I found his heavy facial makeup rather distracting.  

Rosie Aldridge is memorably expressive as Matilda, whose aria “How tender should I be?” cleverly tracks the oscillations of a broken heart from revulsion to passion – and back again. In places, Aldridge’s natural instinct for comedy threatens to jeopardise her characterisation: Matilda certainly has some shadows of Bridget Jones, but Handel’s plot is a delicate balance of emotions which also requires anguish and fierceness from Matilda. Aldridge is at her best in “Ah, you don’t know how much my heart sighs for his sorrow,” delivered with touching stillness and sincerity. Grant Doyle’s warm-voiced Emireno is a joy at all times, delivering his part with flair and wit, reassuring his sister in a luscious baritone which almost sounded like a brotherly hug after the two soaring countertenors.