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Briefly Noted: Gluck's 'Ezio'

available at Amazon
Gluck, Ezio, S. Prina, A. Hallenberg, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis

(released on September 27, 2011)
Virgin 5099907092923 | 146'53"
We are on record as wanting to hear much more of the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck. Of course, as a Baroque fanatic, I am thrilled by the revival of the operas of Handel and Vivaldi, but Gluck's operas are much more influential on the history of opera, because it is on his groundbreaking reforms that the operas of Mozart and Wagner were built. So, it is odd that many opera companies -- Washington and Santa Fe among them -- have only recently been programming Gluck, and then rarely and often just the few better-known operas. This is Alan Curtis's first foray into the Gluck operas, after so many fine recordings of the operas of Vivaldi and especially Handel, and one hopes that his well-honed ensemble, Il Complesso Barocco, will turn to more of the composer's works.

Curtis goes back to Gluck's original version of Ezio, premiered at the Teatro Nuovo in Prague in 1750. After the premiere of Orfeo in Vienna in 1762, the first salvo in the composer's campaign to reform opera seria, he revised Ezio according to his reform-oriented ideas, for the Burgtheater in 1763. The revisions were significant, in part because Gluck had recycled some of his music from Ezio in Orfeo, so the opera had to be redone to play for Viennese audiences. Gluck used a libretto by Metastasio, set multiple times by many composers, including Handel in 1732 (an opera also recorded beautifully by Curtis). The title character is a Roman general, Flavius Aetius, fighting just before the Western Roman Empire's flame was finally extinguished. Popular because of his military successes against the Huns, he ran afoul of the jealous emperor Valentinian III and ended up murdered, only to have his friends avenge his death by murdering the emperor in turn. Curtis is not slavishly faithful to the original text, keeping some of the cuts of possibly unflattering texts Gluck later made to the libretto and incorporating some musical changes and embellishments from other sources.

A meddling notable, Petronius Maximus (Massimo), acts on his grudge against Valentinian by encouraging the emperor's jealousy. Massimo's conniving plots and Ezio's stubborn pride appear to seal Ezio's fate -- execution for treachery he did not commit -- but the required lieto fine demands a series of unlikely twists so that it all works out in the end. Even though Gluck was writing a traditional opera seria according to the expected star singer-driven conventions, Gluck's approach even to the stock arias is original. One example is Massimo's Se povero il ruscello, with murmuring strings evoking the babbling waters of the gently flowing stream in the A section, and lovely ornamentation from tenor Topi Lehtipuu and the solo oboist. It is music so good that Gluck used it again for the moment when Orfeo beholds the Elysian fields. Curtis returns to some of his favorite singers, with contralto Sonia Prina and mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg reunited from his recording of Handel's Ezio. Prina astounds in the title role by both her daredevil technique (on display in the bravura aria Se fedele mi brama, from the end of Act I) and robust, melting legato tone (in the luscious aria Ecco alle mie catene, sung by Ezio in prison). Hallenberg is equally affecting as Ezio's daughter Fulvia, with dramatic presence for the striking accompagnato Misera dove son! and edgy force for the following aria Ah, non son io, in Act III. Croatian countertenor (and former Vienna Choirboy) Max Emanuel Cenčić has a satisfying turn as the emperor Valentiniano, with a radiant tone in the aria Dubbioso amante in Act II.

1 comment:

Nick Miliokas said...

Composer and ensemble are indeed a nice fit.