Gluck's work as an opera composer is much more rounded, much
more subtle, perhaps, than is often assumed when only his reforms
are considered - significant though such advances are to the
history of the form in particular and indeed to the development
of music in general. Paradoxically, now we have to adjust to
ways of listening to those of the composer's operas which are
structured on da capo arias - just as audiences to Orfeo
ed Euridice (1762) onwards had to adjust to the more naturalistic
idiom for which Gluck is best known, and which largely abandoned
that somewhat more inflexible format.
The classically-inspired Ezio dates from 1750 - the version
which Gluck wrote for the Teatro Nuovo in Prague - although
he did revise it 13 years later for the Vienna Burgtheater.
It's to a libretto by Metastasio that's rich in opportunities
for singers to explore and expose their feelings. Metastasio
was almost the 'default' provider of such libretti in the middle
of the eighteenth century. The origins of Ezio lie towards
the beginning of his career. Its currency is the intrigues,
envies, rivalries, loves and power-struggles around Aetius (Ezio),
victor over Atilla the Hun in Fifth Century Rome.
The plot follows the seventeenth and eighteenth century conventions
(Corneille's Maximian has been suggested as a possible
model for Metastasio). A measure of psychological insight uses
the vehicle of the interactions, pre-occupations and musings
of mostly real figures from, in this case, barely a thousand
years earlier. Yet Gluck's Ezio has as much genuine humanity
and means to identify with the characters' concerns as any opera
by Handel, and perhaps several by Mozart. Listen to the exchange
between Fulvia (Ann Hallenberg) and Onoria (Mayuko Karasava)
in Act One [CD.1. tr.19], for example: plenty of scarcely-controlled
venom yet no histrionics or empty gesturing or posturing. Then
the unaffected plaintive quality of Valentiniano's(Max
Emanuel Cencic) 'Dubbioso amante' [CD.2 tr.2] illustrates an
interesting blend of realism and discernibly shifted perspectives.
But they're perspectives with which we can have great sympathy
just the same. This thanks to the calm, the control and the
confidence of Curtis's direction, which are always informed
by his scholarship.
Each of the singers on this set has their own strengths …
and they are many: expressiveness, lightness of touch, sensitivity
to the others' interventions, technical competence without a
hint of wizardry, and a refreshing genuineness. These all add
considerably to the part which Gluck played in advancing the
weight and appeal of the genre of Baroque opera.
From first note to last each of the principals is direct and
transparent in their delivery, particularly adept at enunciating
Metastasio's equally lucid text. This is fully in accord with
the musical idioms that Curtis makes so much of without any
self-consciousness. Indeed, that director's reputation as a
specialist in the field is enhanced yet further by this recording.
He's someone who makes great sense for a modern audience of
at times understandably mannered writing and performance expectations.
Particularly noteworthy amongst the singers is mezzo Sonia Prina's
Ezio, with 'Ecco alle mie catene' [CD.2 tr.10] - a highpoint.
The acoustic will be considered, perhaps, just a touch dry.
Although recorded three years ago during a live performance
in Poissy, some listeners will probably find it lacks real atmosphere;
there's no applause at the work's conclusion, for instance.
On the other hand, Ezio is an opera seria, which
requires more attention than reaction. There are few comic moments;
the tensions and resolutions - towards a lieto fine -
are important ones for all that Gluck was writing less holistically
than he later did. You are certainly more able to concentrate
on the workings of Ezio than on any kind of spectacle,
as you might want to with an equivalent Vivaldian opera. The
booklet that comes with the CDs is first class … a good
introduction, the full libretto in Italian with English translation.
There can be nothing but praise for Alan Curtis in this edition,
realisation, performance and recording. He has brought fully
to life a significant work in an otherwise perhaps somewhat
formulaic style. He has made of it much more than a series of
stilted interchanges rather he has quietly allowed the libretto
and music to breath life into the characters, their situations
and the world in which they operated. Most successful of all,
his account makes us really care about that world and appreciate
how Gluck's inventive music illuminates it.
There are four recordings of Gluck's Ezio in the current
catalogue. For sheer clarity and strength of this excellent
cast's interpretations, immediacy and beauty of instrumental
playing as well as richness of the acting, appropriate tempi
and good production standards of the two-CD set, this new Virgin
release must now be considered the preferred recording.