Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714 - 1787)
Ezio - Music Drama (1750)

Ezio, General of Caesar’s armies, in love with Fulvia - Sonia Prina (contralto); Valentiniano, Emperor, in love with Fulvia - Max Emanuel Cencic (counter-tenor); Fulvia, Daughter of Massimo, in love with, and promised to, Ezio -Ann Hallenberg (soprano); Massimo, a Roman patrician - Topi Lehtipuu (tenor); Varo, Prefect, friend of Ezio - Julian Prégardien (tenor);
Mayuko Karasava, Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis.
rec. before and after a live performance, Théâtre de Poissy, December 2008
VIRGIN CLASSICS 07092923 [69.27 + 77.26]

Gluck desperately wanted to break away from the conventions of opera seria extant at the time of his earlier operatic compositions. He found the form of recitative and aria, as exemplified by Handel in particular, over-formalised and dramatically static. He did so in his Orfeo ed Euridice of 1762 as he also sought to move away from the convention of the use of castrati. The latter situation led to his re-writing Orfeo for Paris where the castrati tradition was not acceptable and the high tenor voice developed. Gluck’s operas of this later period became known as his Reform Operas. However, like the operas of Handel and the earlier works of Vivaldi, we have come to appreciate the qualities of his musical compositions of the pre-reform period, a state of affairs greatly assisted by specialised female singers of vocal flexibility and the emergence of male counter-tenors.

Written to a libretto by the prolific Metastasio, Ezio exemplifies the formal opera seria that Gluck sought to leave behind. After Orfeo's premiere in Vienna he revised Ezio for performance at the city's Burgtheater in 1763. His revisions accommodated the large size of the Burgtheater and the need for an expanded orchestra. While using the original 1750 version, this recording is slightly abridged omitting several contributions for the lesser comprimario parts.

Ezio is one of Metastasio's most dramatic opera librettos. Set in Rome after the defeat of Attila the Hun, it is based loosely on historical fact and follows the adulation that attended the victorious General’s return. Metastasio grafted on an amorous intrigue. The story is one of the few of the period lacking any absurdities or situations which modern listeners often find difficult to accept. Details of the background of Metastasio’s Ezio and Gluck’s setting for Prague, along with an analysis, are included in an extended erudite essay by Bruce Alan Brown. It is given in English, French and German as is the full translation of the text and synopsis.

Alan Curtis is well versed in baroque music with several recordings of Handel operas. He brings a sure rhythmic baton to the proceedings along with his period band. His soloists have similar credentials to those of the conductor; their names often appear in performances and recordings of works by Handel and Vivaldi. All are nicely contrasted and expressive. I was particularly taken by the full-toned, yet flexible and expressive Sonia Prina in the eponymous role, notably in Ezio’s long opening arias Se tu las reggi and Pensa a serebarmi (CD 1 Trs.6 and 8). Her voice is well contrasted to the high soprano of Ann Hallenberg as Fulvia who gets the highly dramatic recitative and aria of the last act and brings considerable skill to her delivery (CD 2 Trs. 21-22). As Valentiniano, Max Emanuel Cencic’s voice in some ways belies description. He used to call himself a male soprano claiming not to be a falsettist. Certainly on record, and I have also heard him in the theatre, his distinctive timbre is unlike that of any other counter-tenor I have heard. Cencic phrases the music with style and good expression, whether in drama or in the softer moments (CD 1 Trs.5-6 and CD 2 Tr.2). I was a little worried at first about Topi Lehtipuu as Massimo. He starts his opening solo and duet recitative with excessive cover to the tone (CD 1. Trs 11-12) and is well into the long aria Se povero before his voice clears and pings with its accustomed clarity (Tr. 13).

This well performed Gluck pre-reform opera, claimed by Curtis to be the best of the genre, is superbly recorded before and during a series of performances. It will be some time before another recording is likely to be forthcoming let alone bettered.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Mark Sealey (January 2012 Bargain of the Month)

Lovers of opera of a later genre will find much to enjoy here.