Ottone, Re di Germania (Otto, King of Germany) was Händel’s fifteenth opera, composed in 1722 and first performed on January 12, 1723 by the Royal Academy of Music at the King’s Theatre Haymarket in London. I saw it three centuries later, in March 2023, as part of the 45th International Händel Festival in Karlsruhe, Germany.
From the program booklet, I learned that there were 34 known performances of Ottone during Händel’s lifetime, all conducted by the composer himself. This made it his third most popular opera, since only Giulio Cesare and Rinaldo were performed more often while he was alive.
Händel got the idea for Ottone from a visit to Dresden, Germany, in 1719, where he saw an opera called Teofane by Antonio Lotti (1667-1740).
Teofane in this opera was a Byzantine princess who was sent to Rome in the year 972 AD to marry the German king and later Holy Roman Emperor Ottone (Otto II, 955-983).
Händel was impressed by the opera and the singers, three of whom he managed to hire for his opera company in London. He also bought the score and the libretto of Lotti’s opera, with the intention of having the text adapted for his London audience (but kept in Italian, of course) and composing his own music for it.
In Händel’s Ottone there are six singers, three women and three men. Two of the women are sopranos and the third is a contralto.
Two of the three men are countertenors — men with high voices, whose roles were sung by castrati in the 18th century — and the third, in striking contrast to the other two, was a deep bass.
The two counter-tenors were both kings (Ottone and Adelberto) and the bass was a pirate (Emireno, who later turned out to be Teofane’s brother).
(Of the six singers in the Karlsruhe production, I had only seen one before, namely the contralto Sonia Prina, since she had sung several times in Frankfurt in various Baroque operas.)
As is often the case in modern productions of Baroque operas, the costuming in Ottone was a big help in keeping the characters sorted out. Gismonda and Adelberto in the Karlsruhe production were both dressed completely in white, with chalky-white facial makeup, to remind us that they were mother and son, and to hint that they were also the villains of the piece, since they were trying to usurp Ottone’s kingdom and steal his fiancée.
Teofane, the Byzantine princess, had never met her future husband, but she had fallen in love with his picture, so she was highly skeptical when Adelberto tried to pass himself off as Ottone. As the program booklet points out, “Händel’s central figure remains unquestionably Teofane,” even though her name is no longer the title of the opera. “She came to Italy without any protection or escort. In this danger she clings to the portrait she has of Ottone, without ever having seen him.”
Watch the trailer for Händel’s Ottone in Karlsruhe.
My photos and text in this post are from 2023.