Handel’s Ottone conducted by George Petrou

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COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Handel
WORKS: Ottone
PERFORMER: Max Emanuel Cenčić, Lauren Snouffer, Pavel Kudinov, Ann Hallenberg, Xavier Sabata, Anna Starushkevych; Il Pomo d’Oro/George Petrou
CATALOGUE NO: 483 1814

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Most admirers of Handel’s operas will know Mainwaring’s story about the composer threatening to throw Francesca Cuzzoni from the window of his Brook Street house, but how many of them will know the aria that was the cause of that dispute? Ottone was subject to multiple revisions even before its January 1723 premiere. ‘Falsa imagine’ stayed despite Cuzzoni’s objections to its simplicity, a perfectly crafted point of reflection in a dynamic drama of political power-grabs, thwarted love and concealed identities.

George Petrou’s recording with Il Pomo d’Oro plumps out the premiere version of Ottone with material that was expanded for a performance two months later, and includes an appendix of three arias that Handel wrote for Senesino to sing in the 1726 revival. Here the leading man is Max Emanuel Cenčić (Ottone), his tone keen, flexible and brilliant. Though Xavier Sabata’s fioritura is more effortful, he brings emotionality and intelligence to the role of Adelberto, delivering an exquisitely poised account of ‘Bel labbro’.

This is an opera in which low voices dominate: Ann Hallenberg as Gismonda, menacing, imperious and agile; Anna Starushkevych as Matilda, tender and magnanimous; Pavel Kudinov as Emireno, darkly handsome of tone. Lauren Snouffer (Teofane) sings Cuzzoni’s role with unruffled elegance and an immaculate technique, coming into her own in ‘O grati orrori… S’io dir potessi al mio crudele’, writing of equal psychological sophistication to Rodelinda. The instrumentation is conservative but the playing is so engaged and well paced that you’ll wonder why Ottone remains relatively obscure.

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Anna Picard