And there was light! Well, slightly more than last time anyway. In 2014, when this production of Ottone first appeared, its director was locked into an unhealthy obsession with dim illumination. Apart from being artistically counterproductive, in show after show there was something of the night about James Conway's work that ensured poorly-sighted or elderly spectators struggled to watch it.

James Hall (Ottone)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Eight years on, revival director Christopher Moon-Little and lighting designer Tim van ’t Hof have increased the wattage from that gloomy original (as far as they dare without upsetting the production’s mood palette) and now there’s a better chance you’ll stay awake. Ottone, you see, is Handel at his least dynamic – six characters in search of a plot whose inertia is only allayed by the vaguest of dramatic arcs – so it needs all the help it can get in order to hold the attention.

His staging has its good points but it puzzles me why, of all his many Handel productions, the departing artistic director chose this opera as part of his farewell trio (alongside a revival of Agrippina and a new Tamerlano). It does little to showcase his talents; indeed, so elaborate is the libretto that while watching Conway's paint dry I wondered where all the action had gone. He has done far better work for the company than this.

As for the cast and creatives, nobody let the side down and several contributors raised it extremely high. Company music director Gerry Cornelius coaxed superb work from the company’s resident Old Street Band, a classy period orchestra that this year sounds richer than ever. It was a joy to watch and to hear the conductor shape his account with technical assurance and idiomatic sensitivity.

Nazan Fikret (Teofane)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Of the solo sextet, soprano Nazan Fikret sang with a luminous beauty that sent my eyebrows northwards. She plays Teofane, a Byzantine princess who’s engaged to the Saxon Emperor Ottone but is stolen away by Adelberto, who’s engaged to Ottone’s sister Matilda… Do keep up. Or, alternatively, just revel in Fikret's voice. Already an established talent, she's en route to the top and on this showing she’s practically there. Edward Jowle excelled late on as Teofane's brother, Emireno; his resonant baritone was a joy to hear and his stagecraft augurs well for an exciting future in opera.

Two good artists share the opera’s countertenor spoils: Kieron-Connor Valentine was very satisfying as the snivelling mummy’s boy Aldeberto, a thoroughgoing brat of a man, while James Hall, one of our foremost falsetto exponents, assumed the title role with immense distinction. Thanks to a mellifluous voice and commanding stagecraft he was an Emperor to his fingertips.

Kieron-Connor Valentine (Adelberto), Edward Jowle (Emireno), James Hall and Nazan Fikret
© Richard Hubert Smith

There can be no complaints about mezzo Lauren Young’s account of the complex yet underwritten character of Matilda, Ottone’s sister. The staging gives her little to get her teeth into but she acquitted herself very well with what she had. As the sixth cast member, an unfortunate indisposition allowed soprano Elizabeth Karani to step up late in the day from cover to player and give a poised, pleasing account of Aldeberto’s suffocating mother Gismonda, one of the opera’s more interesting characters. Both women blended beautifully in one of the opera’s highlights, the duet “Notte cara”.

Ottone is sung in English without any surtitles beyond a desultory on-the-go plot digest, surely the worst of all possible worlds when the libretto's such a spider's web. On the other hand, that does allow us to admire the handsome settings by takis that resemble three segments of a giant gold immersion heater, decorated on the inside with Byzantine paintings and reconfigured to suggest rather than depict a variety of locations. They also give Tim van ’t Hof scope for some effective lighting effects on or even through them. And this time round they look terrific.

***11