Christoph Willibald GLUCK
Ezio - original Prague version (1750) (CD 1: Act 1; CD 2: Acts 2-3)
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. DDD
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 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.
Mark Sealey
On all counts this new Virgin release must now be considered the preferred recording.