Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Ezio – dramma per musica in three acts (1750 Prague version) [98:00]
Jana Levicová – Ezio
Eva Müllerová – Fulvia
Yukiko rejmová Kinjo – Onoria
Michaela růmová – Valentiniano
Martin rejma – Massimo
Ondrej Socha – Varo
Prague Symphony Chamber Orchestra/Jirí Petrdlík
rec. live, church of St Simon and Juda, Prague, April 2010
ARCODIVA UP 0141-2232 [2 CDs: 98:00]
Gluck wrote Ezio for Prague at a time when the Bohemian capital was a renowned international centre for Italian opera. Ever since the coronation of Charles VI in 1723 composers from all over Europe had gone there to stage “Italian seasons”. These included Italians themselves – a Venetian company was one of the first – but also many composers from the Habsburg empire, most notably Mozart who premiered Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito in the city. Gluck, who had studied at Prague’s Charles University, composed Ezio for the 1750 carnival season. Many of its numbers were subsequently copied, so we can infer a success, and some of its tunes were even adopted for liturgical use at St Vitus’ Cathedral. Ezio soon fell off the radar, however, and it doesn’t seem to have done much business since. It’s appropriate, then, that this recording should come from the enterprising Czech label Arcodiva who recorded this live performance in 2010.
The opera is to a text by Metastasio, that doyen of 18th century opera seria librettists. It revolves around fairly typical themes of love triangles, mistaken assumptions and happily-ever-after conclusions, though in this case the denouement is so rapid as to be almost a parody of the convention! Gluck’s music for this, his fifteenth opera, is solid and dependable but, to my ears, shows little promise of the great genius his later years would produce. The arias are pleasant and easy on the ear and there are memorable turns, such as an effective “rage” aria for Massimo in the second act, and an energetic trio which rounds off that same act. Much of it is fairly forgettable, though, and it isn’t until Fulvia’s final aria where she envisions a terrible fate, that we get even a hint of the “reform” principles that Gluck was to put to such famously effective purpose in his later works.
The performances are very good, though they take a while to catch fire and the first act is fairly unimpressive from nearly everyone. Jana Levicová grows into the role of Ezio, acquiring dignity in the face of suffering in the second act, though her first act appearances are characterised by languid, almost droopy singing, especially in her first aria. Eva Müllerová’s Fulvia is more beautifully feminine though, again, somewhat limp at the start. She is the singer who most successfully ornaments her da capos, but it takes a while for her voice to attain the muscularity needed to carry this off convincingly. Her “Zeffiro” aria shows her off well, though, and she makes one of the finest contributions to the last act. The most successful singer overall is Michaela růmová as the emperor Valentiniano. Her voice is pure, alluring and agile throughout, always winning, though always undoubtedly feminine. Yukiko rejmová Kinjo makes a strong Onoria, contrasting well with the other ladies. The men are a little disappointing: Martin rejma is the better of the pair, secure in his middle and lower range, and impressing in his rage aria, though he is uncomfortable at the top and struggles to be heard at some moments in the first act. Ondrej Socha has a gravelly, unlovely baritone and he struggles throughout with pitching.
The Prague Symphony Chamber Orchestra play on modern instruments and do a good job, though their performance – or is it the direction of Jirí Petrdlík? – is rather homogenous and they could do with making more of the contrasts in the work. I wonder if the music would sound any more energetic coming from period instruments. The whole is recorded in a church acoustic which mainly brings benefits, creating an atmospheric bloom around the sound, though sometimes there is rather too long a wait between the end of a recitative and the beginning of an aria, perhaps to let the acoustic settle. Enthusiastic applause at the end of each act tells you that the recording was made live, but the audience are so well behaved at all other points that otherwise you wouldn’t suspect it.
None of this should put you off exploring, and if you’re a serious collector of Gluck then you can pick up this set without fear of disappointment. For most of us it remains something of a curiosity and a rarity, but it’s still an interesting listen. The Italian text is provided but the issue’s only serious let-down is a lack of any translation, matched with a synopsis that I found fairly difficult to follow. Most listeners would surely have preferred some space devoted to a translation rather than the artist biographies we are given instead. The booklet does, however, contain a scholarly essay about the piece and some useful contextual background.
If you’re a serious collector of Gluck then you can pick up this set without fear of disappointment.