There are so many issues to address when planning to present opera seria. The first of these is whether or not to cut. If you don’t cut, the performance is likely to last three hours plus however long you allow for intervals. If you don’t cut, there has to be an early evening start (no later than 7pm) or your audience will struggle to get home in areas not well served by public transport and/or those in which most local residents are tucked up in bed by 10.30pm. English Touring Opera performs on tour throughout England and has to be kind to its audience. The trouble is that if you cut so much recitative and focus instead on the “extraordinary psychological landscape” provided by the arias as James Conway chose to do, you do indeed (as he suggested) risk presenting a series of soliloquies, or a glorified song-cycle with all of the real drama knocked out of the opera.
The next dilemma is whether to sing in Italian with surtitles or in English (also usually with surtitles these days.) The opening night of the ETO run of Ottone was sadly beset by problems with the surtitling system. According to Mr Conway, a previous incarnation of the libretto had to be resorted to and initially, after some fifteen minutes of delay, the surtitles didn’t match the action. Putting that aside (although it did prolong the finish by some thirty minutes,) apart from one or two notable moments when the English sounded awkward, Mr Conway’s translation was excellent as ever and it was good to see an acknowledgement of assistance from the greatest living translator of libretti, Andrew Porter. But once again Mr Conway chose not to offer verbatim surtitles throughout. Instead he chose to set the mood of a scene or introduce the mood of an aria before it started, leaving the singers to enunciate the English words as clearly as possible. As one of the countertenors was having a bad night and was only intermittently able to project his voice, plus the tessitura of Teofane’s role was so high, we were left to enjoy the music without catching more than 20% of what these characters were saying. (I add here a footnote that those seated in stalls and grand circle in the Hackney Empire could hear every word. I sadly can only report on what I could hear – or was unable to do – in the Gods.)
Another pressing question when presenting opera seria is; do you want your singers to present drama according to Aristotelian principles, allowing the audience to contemplate questions of love and duty (“Pensa ad amare, che dal tuo cor amor si chiede più che dover;”) or do we treat 18th century opera as a bit of a joke, owing more to commedia dell’arte than serious drama. The trouble is that many of the operas of the time appear as if they will end in tragedy, until the doleful tyrant pardons his aggressor, illustrating the nobility and magnanimity of kings. If you cut long passages of recitative as you approach the denouement, the drama at the close moves so quickly it becomes farcical, prompting modern audiences to titter all the way to the bar.
Just as in Agrippina this time last year, the centre-piece of the set was based on an apse shape. This time it was split into three elements (moved around as usual by those hard-working singers doing double-duty as stagehands.) The inside of the apse was decorated with wonderful semi-religious designs clearly inspired by Byzantine art, such as you might see in the great cathedrals of Venice. The costumes too were superb, especially Teofane’s Byzantine wedding garments and headdress (Vikki Medhurst is credited as Costume Supervisor and the Wardrobe Mistress is Jessica Davis.) Lighting too was extremely effective, thanks to Lee Curran, who was able to transform one set into a palace, a battlefield and a sea-cave.
I was delighted to see that Gillian Webster who so impressed in last year’s Agrippina once again featured in the cast. As Gismonda, the scheming mother of Adelberto who persuades him to impersonate Ottone and so “get the girl” she had another mother-in-law-from-Hell role to get her teeth into and appeared to do so with great gusto. Interestingly, I didn’t feel she had many opportunities to shine in this particular role, but that was at least in part because this was a reading of Ottone with most of the drama knocked out of it.
As pretty much everybody’s love interest, sent to be Ottone’s bride but deceived into thinking Adelberto was her intended, the role of Teofane was taken by the young soprano Louise Kemeny. As well as looking stunning in her Byzantine garments, this young lady sang plaintively and expressively and has a lovely vocal radiance.
Rosie Aldridge as Matilda suffered even more than Teofane at the hands of the evil schemers. She was betrothed to Adelberto and passed over by him in favour of Teofane and all that marriage with her offered him, in political terms. She is a relative of Ottone (in this production his sister) and struggles with the conflict between her love for Adelberto and her duty to reveal his attempts at deception and a coup. Miss Aldridge is another fine young singer, contributing very ably to an ensemble cast, but who, it seemed to me, had had most of the best bits removed from her role.
Grant Doyle sang the role of Emireno. He impressed me as Hector in the ETO production of Tippett’s King Priam, which has just won an Olivier Award. His voice has a wonderful resonance which filled every corner of the Hackney Empire. Rather confusingly, he is revealed to be Teofane’s long-lost brother, disguised as a pirate. I say confusingly because there appeared to me to be more sexual chemistry in the hug between Emireno and Teofane than between her and either of the two princes who fought so fiercely over her hand.
How nice to see both the battling princes, played in the original 1723 production by Senesino and Gaetano Berenstadt, being played by male singers. Talking of confusion, we first see Adelberto pretending to be Ottone. My confusion was compounded by the fact that I was expecting Andrew Radley, who played Adelberto, to be well up to the task on past form. Conversely I had had prior doubts about Clint van de Linde as Ottone, purely on the basis of the last time I heard him. Much as I take pride in my knowledge of the 21st century generation of castrato-like countertenors, on this occasion I made the wrong call. Mr van der Linde was consistently excellent to my ears as Ottone and cut a convincing dash as the conquering hero, although most of the music which convinces us that Ottone really loves his Teofane seemed to be missing. Sadly on this occasion Mr Radley sounded woolly in his middle register, often displayed a ‘hooty’ timbre and only came into his own in the aria substitued for “ D’innalzar i flutti al ciel” in Act 3, which was both plaintively and elegantly sung. I really believe that the countertenor voice is both precious and precarious. There must be some days when the sound you want to make just won’t come out, because I know Mr Radley is capable of singing with a beautifully controlled focused sound. In this particular battle of the countertenors, Mr van der Linde was in all senses the victor to whom went all the spoils.
The Old Street Band impressed me much more than last year with the welcome inclusion of Leo Duarte as principal oboe and Philip Turbett as principal bassoon who injected some much-needed energy and drive into proceedings. Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted as expressively as ever, but failed to convince me stylistically with his choice of ornamentation. This is of course a matter of personal taste, but I felt the divisions were over-complex and wandered too far from the elegance of Handel’s phrasing.
Photos: Richard Hubert Smith