This is the latest Handel opera from what I think of as Max Emmanuel Cencic's Flying Circus - Cencic gets credited here with the "artistic concept". He seems to have a portfolio of conductors, bands and singers for his various albums, and in this case has put together his best band (Pomo D'Oro), his best conductor (Petrou), a cast of his better regular singers, and one star visitor (Ann Hallenberg). All forces combine well with Hallenberg bringing a touch of real class. Add an excellent recording and the result is the best Handel opera set since Petrou/Cencic "Alessandro" in 2011 – certainly a great improvement on their "Arminio" from 2015.
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.