'Ottone is, even for Handel, unusually rich in lovely, heartrending arias' (The Times)
'Everywhere, the dexterity and resource of Robert King's Consort lend enchantment' (The Independent)
'Superbe' (Compact, France)
Act 1 Scene 3 No 3: Concerto [2'39]
Handel’s Ottone was one of the most popular operas of the composer’s career, with 34 known performances during his lifetime, beaten only by the 53 performances of Rinaldo. The premiere run in 1723 featured superstar Italian soloists including Senesino and Cuzzoni, and coincided with (and was perhaps the cause of) the height of London’s opera madness, with tickets changing hands for increasingly high prices on the black market. This recording of the 1723 version (Handel adapted the opera in later years for different singers) features James Bowman at the peak of his powers in the title role.
The first performance of Handel’s Ottone took place in London on 12 January 1723 at the King’s Theatre. Handel had finished composing the opera the previous summer, with the first draft completed on 10 August, but he had to make several revisions before the first performance took place. The problems lay with his all-star cast, several of whom professed themselves unhappy with the nature and character of their roles. Handel had been fortunate to engage the services of several fine Italian singers to work for the Royal Academy of Music, which had been promoting Italian opera in London since 1720, and his cast for Ottone in 1723 contained three of these—the soprano Margherita Durastanti as Gismonda, the famous alto castrato Senesino in the title role, and the bass Giuseppe Boschi, alongside the English contralto Anastasia Robinson (playing Matilda), the alto castrato Gaetano Berenstatt as Adelberto and, as the princess Teofane, the latest young star from Italy, the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni.
Handel’s text was adapted by Nicolo Haym from the libretto that Stefano Pallavicino had written for the Dresden performances of Lotti’s Teofane in 1719. This commission had celebrated the marriage of the Electoral Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony to the Archduchess Maria Josepha of Austria. Pallavicino had in turn based his plot on the true story of an earlier royal marriage, that of Otto II of Germany to the Eastern Princess Theofano, which had taken place in Rome in 972. To this he added, for good measure, the suppression of Berengar’s attempt to usurp Otto’s throne in 950 (aided by Berengar’s wife Willa—transformed in the new plot into Gismonda) and the succession of Basil II to the throne of the Eastern Empire in 976. The disguise of Basilio in the opera as the brigand Emireno is Pallavicino’s own invention.
Mrs Robinson was unhappy with the role she was given, complaining that ‘it in no way suits my capacity’, and used the Modenese ambassador Giuseppe Riva to get through to Handel. The quiet approach seems to have worked, for the composer replaced two of her arias to provide a softer side to her character. Cuzzoni was making her debut in London, and she clearly intended to show her dazzling qualities. She had a good advance press too, as The London Journal of 27 October 1722 promised:
There is a new Opera now in Rehearsal at the Theatre in the Hay-Market, a Part of which is reserv’d for one Mrs. Cotsona, an extraordinary Italian Lady, who is expected daily from Italy. It is said, she has a much finer Voice and more accurate Judgment, than any of her Country Women who have performed on the English Stage.
Cuzzoni’s voice was clearly better than her looks, for the diva was described by Horace Walpole as ‘short and squat, with a doughy cross face’! But the character of Teofane is a sad, mostly melancholic one and, when she finally arrived in Britain, Cuzzoni told Handel she would have none of this, as Mainwaring later recounted:
Having one day some words with CUZZONI on her refusing to sing Falsa imagine in OTTONE: Oh! Madame, (said he) je sçais bien que Vous êtes une véritable Diablesse: mais je Vous ferai sçavoir, moi, que je suis Beelzebub le Chéf des Diables. With this he took her up by the waist, and, if she made any more words, swore that he would fling her out of the window.
Suffice it to say that Handel, despite his well documented dictatorial treatment of his musicians in rehearsal, did not eject his leading lady by this novel means, and his judgement in retaining the aria was proved correct, for ‘Falsa imagine’ became the hit of the season. Indeed, Ottone became one of the most popular operas of Handel’s career, with 34 known performances during his lifetime, beaten only by the 53 performances of Rinaldo. London went opera mad, and De Fabrice wrote that ‘there is such a run on it that tickets are already being sold at 2 and 3 guineas which are ordinarily half a guinea, so that it is like another Mississippi or South Sea Bubble’. Gay wrote to Jonathan Swift on 3 February that ‘folks, that could not distinguish one tune from another, now daily dispute about the different styles of Handel, Bononcini, and Attilio’ and that ‘Senesino is daily voted to be the greatest man that ever lived’. Even the Footmen’s Gallery (from where the rich patrons’ staff were able to watch) was caught up in the enthusiasm, and threats had to be made by the theatre management that ‘The next Time any Disorder is made there, the Gallery will be shut up’. Barracking seems to have had a rather genteel tone in those days, for one report mentions a cry of ‘Damn her! she has got a nest of nightingales in her belly!’.
Despite Cuzzoni’s high fee of £1500, double the original estimate by the Duke of Portland for the Academy, the season made a profit, and shareholders were paid a dividend of 7%. The next year Handel was able to move to Brook Street, where he lived for the rest of his life, and after its initial run of fourteen performances the opera was revived for six more in December 1723, eight in 1726, two in 1727 and seven in 1733. As ever, for these revivals he added and replaced arias as he became familiar with new singers or had to re-cast (in 1726 Matilda became a soprano and Gismonda a contralto): Robert King’s performing version follows the score heard in January 1723 at the Haymarket Theatre.
Handel’s orchestral scoring for Ottone was quite modest, especially if we look to the exotic instrumental colours and on-stage band of Julius Caesar the next year. But the simplicity of scoring (just strings, oboes and bassoon, with recorders in Ottone’s wonderful nocturnal ‘Deh! non dir’) allowed the composer to concentrate on melodic grace, rather than crowd-pleasing fireworks.
The Argument from Haym’s original 1723 libretto
Synopsis and Commentary—Act I
After the three-section Overture (a serious, dotted French opening, followed by a fugal section and a gently lilting Gavotte) Gismonda, in ‘Pur che regni il figlio amato’, is full of ambition for her son Adelberto, wishing only that he can reign securely. The aria is dominated by a menacing, rising unison figure in the orchestra. Gismonda persuades Adelberto to present himself to Teofane, impersonating Ottone, and he assures his mother that Teofane will not recognize him. In Gismonda’s aria ‘La speranza è giunta in porto’ she expresses her delight that her plans are about to come to pass.
Adelberto welcomes Teofane. She is horrified by the discrepancy between the portrait in her locket and the person she actually sees before her: she wonders why she came all this way. Adelberto quickly proposes marriage as if he were Ottone and sings of his hopes in the touching aria ‘Bel labbro, formato’: the high sustained string accompaniment and the rich scoring of the ritornello (with bassoon high in its tenor register) add poignancy to a beautiful number. Teofane is confused and extremely upset: when finally alone she blames the portrait for deceiving her. Her aria ‘Falsa imagine’ (which had caused such strife in rehearsal) is accompanied only by the continuo section, with the strings reserved for the final playout: its simplicity and memorable melody were, as so often is the case in Handel, the reasons for its huge success.
The mood is broken by a lively instrumental sinfonia, full of rushing string passage work and breaks for the woodwind, as the real Ottone arrives, having defeated and captured the pirate Emireno. The movement proved extremely popular, becoming widely known as ‘The Concerto in Ottone’: Handel later re-used it at the start of his Concerto Grosso Op 3 No 6. Emireno hints that he is really someone more important but refuses to tell Ottone who he actually is. In the blustering aria ‘Del minacciar del vento’ (not so dissimilar to Polyphemus’s famous aria in Acis and Galatea) the orchestra imitates wind and storms in music of great character. Ottone sends Emireno to prison and turns his thoughts towards Teofane and his new kingdom but is interrupted by his fearsome cousin Matilda. Matilda tells Ottone of Gismonda’s scheming, of Adelberto’s designs on Teofane, and that she, Matilda, is already betrothed to Adelberto. In the melancholic aria ‘Ritorna, o dolce amore’ Ottone yearns for Teofane.
Matilda, alone, resolves revenge on Adelberto for breaking his word. In the outer sections of ‘Diresti poi così’ she asks herself if she could speak kindly to Adelberto, but in the contrasting, lively middle section she speaks of the rage to which a woman’s heart can quickly turn.
Gismonda is now posing as Adelaide, Ottone’s mother, and is alone with Teofane. Teofane asks Gismonda questions about her supposed son, and receives answers which of course relate to Adelberto, not Ottone. In ‘Pensa ad amare’ Gismonda lectures Teofane that love demands more than mere duty from the heart. Teofane does not like Adelaide’s haughty manner. Adelberto presses ahead with his suit and leads Teofane to the marriage ceremony. Gismonda intrudes with the news of Ottone’s arrival in Rome, forcefully urging the reluctant Adelberto to take arms against him. Teofane, left alone and now realizing that Adelberto is an impostor, tells of her torment. Her aria ‘Affanni del pensier’ is one of the highlights of Act I, with its minor key, dropping chromaticism and intense suspensions creating music of powerful effect.
In the very short Sinfonia which follows, Ottone’s soldiers are represented in combat with Adelberto’s troops: Ottone captures Adelberto who remains defiant in defeat. In ‘Tu puoi straziarmi’ the repeated orchestral figurations give greater emphasis to the captured prince’s protestations. Although Ottone has still not yet found Teofane, he ends the Act optimistically, declaring peace and goodwill to all parties and looking forward to both kingship and marriage. ‘Dell’onda ai fieri’ would have ensured that eighteenth-century audiences went out to the bar in fine spirits!
Matilda and Gismonda, alone together, vent their anguish over Adelberto’s fate. Matilda suggests pleading Ottone for mercy on Adelberto’s behalf. The proud Gismonda prefers death for herself and her son, but in ‘Ah! tu non sai’ Matilda insists she will be content only with Adelberto’s freedom. When alone, Gismonda reveals that she too feels compassion: her aria ‘Vieni, o figlio’ is a gem (its key and mood looking forward to ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’), its melody again proving that the simplest tunes are the often the best.
Ottone and Teofane are about to meet at last, each fairly certain that they know who the other is, when Matilda intrudes and throws herself at Ottone’s feet, pleading on behalf of Adelberto. Teofane hides and watches as Ottone, though refusing the plea for clemency, embraces Matilda in pity. Matilda is furious at Ottone and sings a stormy aria, ‘All’orror d’un duolo’, summoning thunderbolts and monsters.
Teofane has completely misconstrued the previous scene and accuses Ottone of infidelity with Matilda. He retorts by accusing her of giving her hand in marriage to Adelberto. In ‘Alla fama, dimmi il vero’ Teofane suggests that Ottone is no longer in love with her. Privately, Ottone cannot understand her reaction and wonders who has caused her to turn against him. In ‘Dopo l’orrore’ he hopes that calm will return after the storm in marvellously Handelian vocal figurations and a splendid orchestral accompaniment. Here was another hit aria for Senesino and Handel’s audiences!
Teofane, alone, asks the god of love for pity, and in her accompagnato ‘O grati orrori’ Handel uses the sustained string parts to great effect to enhance the sense of total abandonment and isolation. Teofane’s aria ‘S’io dir potessi’ sighs with sadness and suffering.
Emireno and Adelberto have escaped from prison through the underground passage, thanks to a map sent to them by Matilda. She has also informed them that a boat awaits them. Emireno sings a jaunty aria ‘Le profonde vie dell’ onde’, asking heaven to allow him freedom again, and vowing to avenge the wrongdoings he has suffered.
Emireno goes searching for the boat. Matilda and Ottone arrive separately, Matilda looking for the entrance to the tunnel and Ottone searching for Teofane. Adelberto hides at the tunnel entrance when he realizes that others are in the garden. He recognizes Ottone and then Teofane. Teofane recognizes Matilda’s voice and sees Ottone. Matilda and Ottone meet: Teofane eavesdrops. She hides in the tunnel entrance, uncomfortably, near Adelberto. Matilda dissuades Ottone from going near the tunnel entrance for fear that the escape might be foiled and her part in it discovered by Ottone. She leads him away. Ottone’s aria ‘Deh! non dir’ is another jewel, with the muted strings and recorders mimicking nocturnal bird calls and engaging in charming dialogue with the soloist.
Emireno returns, having found the boat and some of his men. Adelberto seizes the fainting Teofane and puts her into the boat. They row away. Gismonda sees the departure and meets the returning Matilda. Together they celebrate the success of their plan, though Matilda harbours apprehension over her deceit of Ottone. Neither is aware of Teofane’s abduction. In the delightful duet ‘Notte cara’ they praise the fact that night has enabled them to carry out their plans. The writing finds similarities with several of the earlier Italian duets in the rhythmically moving bass line and vocal suspensions: the two women end the act optimistically.
Ottone is utterly desolate, and in the accompagnato ‘Io son tradito’ and the aria ‘Tanti affanni’ muses over his desertion and betrayal by everyone. Here we have Handel at his most intense: the key, F minor, is already flat, but the music modulates further into some of the most extreme keys in the whole baroque repertoire.
The boat and the three escapees have been unable to get very far due to a storm. Emireno suggests that they wait until the weather improves and says that he will stand guard over Teofane. In the glorious aria ‘D’innalzar i flutti’ Handel is at his most melodic, with Adelberto’s delicate line accompanied by exquisite string figurations. Adelberto hopes not only that the weather will calm but that love too will brighten for him with Teofane.
Adelberto goes in search of shelter from the storm and Teofane tells Emireno that she is the daughter of Romano, King of Byzantium. Emireno goes to embrace her, because he is in fact her brother, Prince Basilio. This attempted embrace too gives her the wrong idea, for she believes he is attempting to seduce her. Adelberto returns at the most inopportune moment and makes the same presumption. Adelberto jealously attacks Emireno, but is overpowered by him and placed under guard. In the aria ‘Nò, non temere’ Emireno assures Teofane that she has nothing to fear.
Teofane reflects on her fate, and invites Emireno’s guard to kill her. Even though Ottone might be in Matilda’s arms she says she will never be unfaithful to him. She is still unaware of Emireno’s true identity and mistrustful of his motives. In the aria ‘Benchè mi sia crudele’ Handel gave his star Cuzzoni an especially good chance to show off her lyrical qualities.
Matilda tells Ottone that Teofane has been taken by Adelberto. Gismonda is exultant at her son’s deed, but Matilda turns on her, telling her that when Adelberto’s head is thrown at her feet her mood will change. Gismonda responds by reporting Matilda’s part in the escape to Ottone. He becomes even more despairing that even his closest allies and family are betraying him, but in ‘Nel suo sangue’ Matilda repents and vows to recapture Adelberto to wash the guilt from her heart. In a marvellously characterful aria, threatening terrible vengeance, she sings that she does not mind if she kills him.
Suddenly Emireno arrives with Adelberto as his prisoner. Ottone orders Adelberto’s death at the hands of Emireno’s men but Matilda demands the right to stab him herself. However, Adelberto’s confession causes her to stop, and once again she takes pity on him. Gismonda seizes the dagger and tries to kill herself. Teofane arrives before Gismonda has time to commit the deed: Ottone and Teofane are finally united, and celebrate with the delicious duet ‘A’ teneri affetti’.
The last strands of the plot are unravelled as Teofane explains that Emireno is really her brother Basilio. Ottone finally realizes what has happened, Gismonda and Adelberto swear loyalty to their king, while Matilda again frees Adelberto and accepts his hand in marriage. The final chorus, a light minuet ‘Faccia ritorno l’antica pace’ (very similar to ‘Galatea dry thy tears’) dancingly brings back peace: love finally vanquishes treachery.
Robert King © 1993