Composer: George Frideric Handel
English Touring Opera
Exeter Northcott Theatre

Nazan Fikret as Teofane with set by takis Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Lauren Young as Mathilda Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

A great deal of emotion pours forth in the English Touring Opera’s revival of its 2014 Ottone with a pared-down set, only the protagonists on stage and little theatre.

Part of its Handelfest (with its 2013 production of Agrippina and a new Tamerlano), Ottone is a rather confusing story of rivalry and forgiveness, identity and relationships.

The German King and Holy Roman Emperor Ottone (James Hall) is spurred into action when Saracen pirates attack the fleet carrying his Byzantine bride. While he is capturing the pirate leader (Edward Jowle), his intended lands safely in Rome where a rival prince Adelberto (Kieron-Connor Valentine), championed by his scheming mother to seize the throne, claims he is Ottone and she is his—despite looking nothing like the portrait she carries of her betrothed.

Meanwhile, Adelberto’s actual betrothed—and sister to Ottone—Mathilda (Lauren Young) feels used and abused, and mounts an army to avenge her betrayal. Ottone returns victorious; Teofane (Nazan Fikret) doesn’t know whom to trust; the pirate leader is not quite whom Ottone expects; Mathilda is torn between love and loathing while Gismonda (cover Elizabeth Karani)’s love for her son is tested against her pride (and found wanting).

They all escape to a cave by the sea where by turns they lament their lot. Confused? You will be, particularly as this is sung in English with no surtitles just a few ‘explanatory’ screens with unhelpful asides: "the bride abandoned and disillusioned", "in which Teofane calls on shadows to bear witness to her extreme sorrow", "in which shame and anxiety overwhelm the hero", "three solitudes and a sister’s betrayal".

takis’s versatile set is a copper-clad apse highly decorated in sumptuous Byzantine gold, blue and terracotta images which breaks and turns to be the battlefield, court and cave (with the odd wisp of sea mist to convince).

With no chorus, little theatre, not a great deal of light and minimal props, Artistic Director James Conway presents a piece which is all about the voices—and those are superb.

Hall, despite the falsetto, brings gravitas to the somewhat hapless King with countertenor richness while slurky usurper countertenor Valentine is precise in castrato and exudes oiliness with weird eyebrows and an Oedipus complex. Jowle brings a welcome relief with rich bass-baritone and warm resonance.

Soprano Fikret is stand-out as the bewildered would-be bride with tremendous control and restrain; Young’s mezzo is feisty and feeling while soprano Karani stepped up convincingly with her duet with Young a highlight.

The Northcott’s acoustics were excellent in what seems an intimate setting where ETO’s recently appointed Music Director conductor Gerry Cornelius wrung every ounce of passion from The Old Street Band with Toby Carr on the unwieldy theorbo of particular note.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell

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