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Handel's 'Ezio'

available at Amazon
Handel, Ezio, A. Hallenberg, K. Gauvin, V. Priante, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis

(released on May 12, 2009)
Archiv 477 8073

Online score:
HWV 29
Alan Curtis's outstanding series of Handel opera recordings continues in the composer's anniversary year with two releases, an Alcina with Joyce DiDonato (review forthcoming) and the first complete studio recording of a much less known opera, Ezio from 1732. It was staged a few years ago at the London Handel Festival, and there is an older recording of most of the score, but Curtis's recording naturally sets a standard for this opera. Although Bärenreiter published Michael Pacholke's new edition of Ezio in its excellent new Handel collected works edition, Die Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, in 2008, Curtis made his own edition from the sources. The editorial problems are likely less pronounced than some other Handel operas, since Ezio was given only five performances and never revived during Handel's lifetime, meaning that the composer did not revisit the work and adjust it for new singers.

Ezio is named for a Roman general, Flavius Aetius, in the waning years of the Western Roman empire. Under Valentinian III, he famously defeated Attila at the Catalaunian Plains in 451, saving the empire from the Huns and delaying the ultimate fall of the empire by a few more years. Fear of his general’s growing popularity, however, led the emperor to have Aetius murdered only three years later. Inevitably, amid the wild jealousy and bitter hatred of the declining empire, Valentinian III was himself murdered by Aetius’s friends the following year. The endless cycle continued as Petronius Maximus replaced Valentinian on the throne, only to be murdered within a matter of months.

Alan Curtis's Handel:
available at Amazon

available at Amazon

available at Amazon

available at Amazon
While Monteverdi skewered this sort of poisonous political atmosphere in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Handel adapted his libretto (.PDF file) from one by Pietro Metastasio, which he encountered in its musical setting by Pietro Auletta during a trip back to Rome. Metastasio, the 18th-century opera reformer, believed that his libretti should serve a didactic purpose, instructing both the average viewer and rulers, a moralizing style that was still influential as late as Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, for example. Most of the bloody matter of political assassination is removed from the story, which is even given a happy ending. Thus the hard-knuckled ruthlessness of the late Roman empire becomes the province of castrati and trouser roles in Handel’s theater.

The alto castrato Senesino, simultaneously one of Handel’s greatest stars and a thorn in his side, created the title role, with the contralto Anna Bagnolesi taking the part of Valentiano. They were only part of a dream cast of singers, for whom Handel outdid himself in terms of crafting demanding music to each voice. The opera was recognized as a critical success but did not enjoy the wave of popularity that would guarantee more than the handful of performances it had. Few modern listeners are likely to find it all that absorbing as music drama either, but for Handel fiends and general Baroque addicts alike this recording is now the reference for this opera.

Sonia Prina has a molten, convincingly male sound as Valentiano, reminiscent in many ways of Marilyn Horne: she is one of Curtis's favorites, having also been cast in his Rodelinda. Ann Hallenberg has a gentler tone, appropriate to the more reserved and calmer Ezio. On the soprano side, Karina Gauvin, whom we have long admired, is a shimmering Fulvia. The rest of the cast is strong, many of them featured in other recordings from this conductor and generally adding striking embellishments to the score. Alan Curtis's instrumental forces are in fine form, with stalwart horns answered by hooty recorders and clean strings in Act III's Se la mia vita, for example, and the continuo line enlivened by varied sounds from harpsichord and theorbo. All in all, fine listening.


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