One explanation for Ottone's neglect in modern times must be its dramatic inertia, and yet so complicated is the synopsis in English Touring Opera's programme that watching it you can't help but wonder where the action is. For most of its duration Handel's 10th-century bunkum is just six characters in search of a plot – albeit set to some sublime music.
Sublimely sung it is, too – in English – by a first-rate sextet of singers. Gillian Webster as Gismonda is the pick of the field: a bit of a devil-mama, her character also gets the best tunes. Her aria of motherly concern just before the interval is the evening's ravishing highlight.
Counter-tenor Clint van der Linde in the title role is a Saxon king to his fingertips, and pre-show apologies for a cold at the first of two Cambridge performances proved happily groundless in his charismatic performance.
Ottone is engaged to Teofane (Louise Kemeny, golden of both voice and glittering costume) whose brother Emireno – heroically sung by the ubiquitous Grant Doyle, who has the bass clef all to himself in this opera – rescues her from the abducting clutches of Gismonda and her son Adelberto (Andrew Radley, a second counter-tenor). Ottone's sister Matilda somehow fits into the giddy mix and is movingly rendered by Rosie Aldridge.
Jonathan Peter Kenny, though overly given to distracting upper-body calisthenics, conducts the versatile Old Street Band in a sprightly account of an enchanting score that's packed with incidental surprises if not incident.
'even with so little action Conway is able to draw us in'
Director James Conway has the measure of his material in a perceptive programme note: Ottone is "complex, compelling and strange... brilliant solitudes, rather than a drama". His production is not afraid to embrace such implicit dramatic stillness, so much so that the first half – by a street the more persuasive fifty percent of the evening – comprises little more than a succession of sung soliloquies. It's to the director's credit that even with so little action he is able to draw us in and sustain visual interest while next to nothing is happening.
Bouts of more confrontational action in the later stages of the opera work less well. There's some unconvincing knife-wielding, and one character's delivery of a bunch of fives to an opponent's hooter drew understandable titters from the audience.
Restrained designs by the lower-case-monikered takis (imagine segments of a giant copper immersion heater with Byzantine paintings inside) are reconfigured to suggest a variety of abstract locations within which Conway, as is his wont, sets scenes that are for the most part inadequately lit. I've mentioned this unhappy tic more than once before but now it's time to take a stand against his chronic chiaroscuro. Alone among regular opera directors, Conway fails to consider the poorly-sighted or elderly spectators who struggle to watch his work without discomfort – especially when title screens on either side of the stage are throwing out so much compensatory glare. Occasional interludes of atmospheric dimness are desirable of course, even essential, but for hour upon relentless hour they're a strain.