BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Ezio - original Prague version (1750) (CD 1: Act 1; CD 2: Acts
Sonia Prina (alto) - Ezio; Max Emanuel Cencic (counter-tenor) - Valentiniano;
Ann Hallenberg (mezzo) - Fulvia; Topi Lehtipuu (tenor) - Massimo; Julian Prégardien
(tenor) - Varo; Mayuko Karasava (soprano) - Onorio
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
rec. live, 18 December 2008, Théâtre de Poissy, Poissy, France.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 0709292 [69:27 + 77:26]
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
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.
On all counts this new Virgin release must now be considered the preferred recording.