Ottone, Handel’s 1723 tragic opera, tells the story of a bloody Roman coup and the marriage of the German emperor Otto II with the Byzantine princess Theophanu around the year 1000 AD. It was one of the composer’s most successful hits, coming at a time when Italian opera was wildly popular in London. Handel assembled a superstar cast for the first performances at London’s Haymarket Theatre, where the value of scalped tickets soared.
Ottone also became the backdrop for one of music history’s most colorful inside stories: When the Italian soprano Francesca Cuzzoni (making her English debut) complained that her opening aria, Falsa imagine, wasn’t flashy or virtuosic enough and insisted that it be replaced, an enraged Handel picked her up by the waist and threatened to throw her out a second story window. Cuzzoni quickly backed down and the well-recieved aria remained a popular staple of her recital and concert repertoire for the remainder of her career.
Considering its plethora of musical riches, it’s surprising that Ottone is performed so infrequently and few recordings exist. That makes this new release all the more exciting. Greek conductor and Handel specialist George Petrou is joined by countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic, soprano Lauren Snouffer, and Il Pomo d’Oro, a period orchestra specializing in baroque opera.
Here is the first act’s Affanni del pensier, performed by Lauren Snouffer. Listen to the searing dissonances in the strings which punctuate this beautifully lamenting siciliane:
Veni, o figlio from the second act is another powerfully dramatic aria. (Listen for this extraordinary descending harmonic progression). Here, it is performed by mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg:
Photograph: Ottone album cover art