Handel: Ottone [3 CD]
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Decca presents a new recording of Handel's Ottone, re di Germania starring "the finest countertenor voice of our day" (Opernwelt) Max Emanuel Cencic and a superb cast under the baton of George Petrou with Il Pomo d'Oro. Premiered in London in 1723, Ottone was one of Handel's most successful operas during his lifetime. This rare recording breathes new life into one of the master's greatest works and features three bonus arias performed in the 1726 revival.
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This recording changes this sad plight for “Ottone” and it, like many of his other operas lately, and it gets to shine again for our ears. The past few years I have been paying more attention to Handel’s stage works and have discovered much great music and singing, greatly increasing my love for his genius.
Contrary to what many have said of this work I did not find it dull, boring, or unworthy; in fact quite the opposite. Many have said that this recording came about because it is a vehicle to show off Max Cencic and his voice, to which I say “So what?....be thankful we have him with us to be able to sing for us and please our ears, hearts and minds!” I look at every singer, recording, etc., as a cause to celebrate and to perpetuate and enhance our experience or knowledge and to reflect against previous efforts by others.
This is a Great Recording, one of Decca’s best of late I personally feel. Preceded by good performances on record were Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi, 3/93) and Robert King (Hyperion, 7/93) which both did fair justice to this work. However this new recording with George Petrou and Il Pomo d’Oro and its cast of vocalists leaves its predecessors far behind. Cencic, Snouffer, Kudinov, Hallenberg, Savara and Starushkevych carry this effort into greater heights, cleaner, clearer and with a greater level of dramatic cohesiveness. You will not regret your purchase of this amazing and beautiful recording with its casting and musical direction. Handel would be deeply pleased with this one, folks, believe me! And, by the way you will also of course...
As I say above, you, like me will fall in love all over again with Handel and his work with this recording. Simply beautiful!
Top international reviews
The only "but" concerns the opera itself. Handel produced "Ottone" the year before "Giulio Cesare" and at the time it was even more popular; but it doesn't have many of the spectacular fast arias which today's audiences appreciate. Instead it favours what the 18th century called the "pathetic" – that is, slower, lightly-scored expressions of deep feeling - love, sadness or longing. We have to a certain extent to "tune in" to this aesthetic if we want to appreciate "Ottone" to the full.
Handel's original "1st Man" was the castrato Senesino (represented by Cencic), famous for his "pathetic representations". The "1st Lady" was Francesca Cuzzoni (Lauren Snouffer here) also known for expressive singing, but she arrived in London only just in time for the opera, which probably explains why the "2nd Lady", Handel's old colleague Margherita Durastanti (Hallenberg in this case) got most of the best tunes. Even the "3rd Lady" the English contralto Anastasia Robinson (here Anna Starushkevych) did well for arias, though the two other men got relatively minor parts. All this means that "Ottone" is really an ensemble piece, and indeed it gets an ensemble performance here, in the sense that there is no weak link in the cast.
Ann Hallenberg justifies her credentials as the best Handel singer of our day, and tops the bill (even as "2nd Lady"). Listen to her aria "Vieni, o figlio" (II.iv) and you hear Handel in expressive mode really lifted from the page – and Hallenberg knocks off the heavy coloratura of "Trema tiranno ancor" (III.i) equally well. Lauren Snouffer is not quite so successful in the most famous aria in the opera, "Falsa imagine" (I.iii), but then the story is that Cuzzoni herself refused to sing the piece on the grounds it was too plain and simple – until Handel threatened to throw her out of the window! Snouffer is better at the faster, lighter music, not least in a dance-duet with Cencic in the final scene. Cencic himself does the "pathetic" pretty well – listen to his "Tanti affanni" (III.ii) - which is perhaps why he chose this opera in the first place. He and the other falsettist both very sensibly stick to a mezza-voce and let the microphone take the strain. Anna Starushkevych is good all round in the different styles and has a fine duet with Hallenberg at the end of Act II, a duet Handel very unusually gives to two female characters, Gismonda (the mother-in-law from Hell) and Matilda (her daughter-in-law elect).
The plot is the usual baroque palace intrigue but there is (from II.viii onward) a long, rather good, confusion-by-night scene a little reminiscent of the last act of "Figaro". The textual history of "Ottone" is convoluted, partly because of the rush before the first performance, and partly because of changes made for many revivals. Cencic (or his advisor) has chosen to stick mostly to the first-night script, adding only a short scene Handel cut from Act III (but later restored) and one other extra aria for Snouffer (just the same plan as that of Nick McGegan's set). He also adds as an appendix three arias for himself from the first revival in 1726. The first of these rather exposes weaknesses in his vocalism which are not so evident in the opera proper.
George Petrou never puts a foot wrong at the helm, giving us appropriate tempi throughout and full but unexaggerated continuo for the recitatives. The recording was made in the Villa San Fermo at Lonigo, where Alan Curtis made many of his Handel Opera discs, but the engineers give this set much more depth and presence than Curtis ever got, and Pomo D'Oro is a bigger and better band that he ever had. I suggest that this recording is an essential buy for Handelians, a recording which makes it far easier to appreciate the opera's particular qualities than the two previous versions.
El Ottone de Max Emanuel Cencic es por momentos seductor (Ritorna, o dolce amore, acto I), esperanzado (Dell’onda ai fieri moti, acto I), señorial (Dopo l’orrore, acto II) o atormentado (Tanti affani, acto III), y siempre nos muestra un Cencic en plena forma y gran carisma interpretativo. La soprano americana Lauren Snouffer es una refinada Teofane, de elegante coloratura y gran madurez expresiva; muy luminosa su “Godde l’alma consolata” (acto III). Poderosa la Matilda de la mezzosoprano ucraniana Anna Starushkevych y convincente el Emireno del bajo ruso Pavel Kudinov. Exquisita es la interpretación del Adelberto de Xavier Sabata en “Bel labbro formato”(acto I) y “Lascia, che nel suo viso” (acto II) con una línea de canto de una elegancia extrema y gran calidad interpretativa. Excelsa Ann Hallenberg como la cruel e intrigante Gismonda. La maestría de la mezzo sueca como intérprete barroca está fuera de toda duda. Magistral su interpretación de la hermosísima“Vieni, o mio figlio, e mi consola” (acto II). Muy adecuada y fiel a los diferentes tiempos de la obra la dirección de George Petrou al frente la orquesta Il Pomo d’Oro.
Como curiosidad, indicar que Ottone fue la única ópera de Händel en la que participó el gran castrato Farinelli, en el papel de Adalberto, en una reposición que tuvo lugar doce años después de su estreno.