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Alan Curtis, described by the New York Times' as "one of the great scholar-musicians of recent times", conducts a brilliant cast including Sonia Prina, Ann Hallenberg, Max-Emanuel Cencic and Topi Lehtipuu in the original, 1750 version of Gluck's Ezio, described by Curtis as "from a dramatic point of view, perhaps the finest of Gluck's pre-Orfeo operas".
Written to a libretto by the prolific and influential Metastasio, Ezio exemplifies the formal opera seria that Gluck sought to leave behind with his so-called reform operas such as Orfeo and Alceste; but after Orfeo's epoch-making premiere in Vienna in 1762 he revised Ezio for performance at the city's Burgtheater in 1763.
"Gluck's revisions to Ezio were not motivated not by any dissatisfaction with the work itself, but by the larger size of the Burgtheater and the concomitant need for a larger orchestra," explains Alan Curtis. "Ezio is one of Metastasio's most dramatic operas. It is also one of the few with a plot totally lacking any absurdities or situations which modern listeners could find difficult to accept. An unfortunate aspect of the later version is the omission of the magnificent aria for the tenor, Massimo - `Se povero il ruscello'. Gluck had adapted it for Orfeo, where it became `Che puro ciel', so the Viennese public already knew it too well. We are especially happy to be able to include it in this new recording, sung magnificently by Topi Lehtipuu."
Curtis provides illuminating insights into Gluck's place in operatic history. "For a while during the twentieth century, Gluck was almost reduced to being a one-opera composer: the composer of Orfeo. One could even say that he suffered from too much praise as the reformer, the saviour of opera -- integrating the chorus into the action, liberating opera from the da capo aria and from solo virtuosity. But these days solo virtuosity and da capo variations are very much back in fashion, and people have come to realise that, especially in the first half of his mature years, he was also a master of this `old-fashioned' seria style."
Until now, Curtis' operatic recordings for Virgin Classics have focused on Handel, with Berenice and Ariodante as the most recent additions to his discography of the composer's works. Gramophone has said that "Alan Curtis has done more than most to prove that many of Handel's 42 operas are first-rate music dramas", while the BBC Music Magazine has praised him as "a seasoned Handelian who has contributed, perhaps more than anyone now, to the composer's operas on disc." How, though, does Curtis view the relationship between Gluck and the older Handel?
"Gluck no doubt respected Handel," he says, "though there is no direct evidence that he learned anything from him -- and certainly no example of his stealing any ideas. Unfortunately, the respect was not mutual. It is said that Handel remarked, after Gluck's visit to London, that his cook knew more about counterpoint than Gluck! Coming from the world of Handelian opera, one is first of all struck by the simplicity of much of Gluck's music -- a simplicity which can be mistaken (as it no doubt was by Handel) for a mere lack of complexity or even lack of skill. But Gluck's music is much more revolutionary than that. It was a way of changing the musical language of the time, and of concentrating on dramatic situations and bare emotions: in short, a way of reforming opera, a process that Gluck and others began long before the appearance of Orfeo in 1762.
"Fortunately for us today, one does not have to choose between these two styles of opera. One can appreciate both. As I work with instrumentalists as singers, not only do we find it refreshing to approach a different style with different criteria, but we sometimes thereby discover new modes of expression. Listen, for instance, to the mezzo soprano Sonia Prina as Ezio, singing `Ecco alle mie catene' near the end of Act II. She is justly famous for her lively, virtuosic Handelian coloratura, but while her Handel can astonish, her Gluck can move you to tears."
Top Customer Reviews
Nooo, it's not the Red Priest, though Vivaldi would have had no cause to be ashamed of this masterwork. And unless you're a topnotch conductor or musicologist, your guess isn't half bad. The opera is "Ezio" by the great ITALIAN composer Christoph Willibald Gluck!
Huh? Wasn't Gluck a Bavarian? And isn't he famous chiefly for reforming the conventions and excesses of Italian opera seria with his compositions "Orfeo ed Euridice" and "Alceste" in Vienna in the 1760s? Yes, that's the standard narrative, and if the only works you've heard by Gluck are those two plus some of his later French operas, you needn't apologize for being surprised by "Ezio," which was composed in 1750 and premiered in Prague. It's Italianate to its toes. The Italian libretto is by Pietro Metastasio, the very poet whose texts had dominated opera stages since the 1720s and the artificer against whom Gluck's reforms were supposedly directed. Except for one trio at the end of act two and one full cast ensemble at the finale, "Ezio" is composed entirely of recitativos and solo da capo arias, most of them seven or more minutes long. The arias are as florid as any by Handel or Vinci, with astoundingly flamboyant embellishments and cadenzas on the reprises ... exactly the sort of star-power castrato virtuosity that Gluck denounced. The orchestra is there to showcase the singers, whose earnings no doubt exceeded the composer's comfortably. Here's the paradox: Gluck, the reformer and prophet of "classical" opera, wrote very fine Italian Baroque.
Except for the mandatory "fine lieto" - happy ending - Ezio is one of Metastasio's most affective dramas. The six characters are based on Roman historical figures of the 5th C: the general Flavius Aetius (Ezio), the emperor Valentinian III, the traitorous patrician Petronius Maximus, plus Valentinian's sister Onoria, Massimo's daughter Fulvia, and Ezio's loyal friend Varro. Ezio and Fulvia are pledged as lovers, but Valentinian wants to wed Fulvia, Onoria wants Ezio, and Massimo wants to kill Valentinian and blame Ezio. But the plot is less convoluted than those of many Baroque operas, and the character portrayals are subtler and more complex. It's the variety and the psychological aptness of the arias assigned to each character that make this opera particularly stage-worthy. "Ezio" had previously been set, by the way, by both Porpora and Handel.
The noble Ezio is sung by contralto Sonia Prina, one of the brightest stars of our operatic era. She's perhaps too diminutive to sing this "trousers" role on stage -- though she did so in 2008 -- but her vocal timbres are more convincingly "masculine" in this recording than most countertenors could produce. Hers is a gorgeous voice trained to perfection in Baroque vocal technique. The countertenor of this cast is Max Emanuel Cencic, in the role of Valentiniano. Handel, I'm sure, would have given us at least one duet between sung compelling artists, but Gluck was too "traditional."
Two delightful surprises! Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg sings Fulvia and sounds better than I've ever heard her before. More secure. More even across her full range. Tenor Topi Lehtipuu, better known for roles in Wagner, sings the role of the villainous Massimo, whose nine-minute aria at the close of Act One is the sweetest, suavest, loveliest piece in the opera. Lehtipuu has immaculate HIPP technique! Superb breath control and phrasing! Incredible flexibility and agility! On top of gorgeous timbres! Why would a guy who can sing Baroque bel canto so superlatively waste his time on Wagner? ;-)
A lot of the credit for the polish of this performance must be due to conductor/scholar Alan Curtis, with his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco. Curtis is a rehearsal perfectionist, as the results demonstrate. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Curtis had a strong hand in the "improvisation" of the embellishments and cadenzas of this recording. Obviously they were prepared and practiced, and their aesthetic unity implies Curtis's supervision. If Gluck was justified, in his later period in Vienna and Paris, in complaining about the overheated vocal pyrotechnics of his divos and divas, all he really needed was an authoritarian conductor like Alan Curtis. Il Complesso Barocco is a magniloquent prsence on this recording, with eight violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass, two oboes, two horns, bassoon, and harpsichord. The libretto is included in Italian and English. This is one of the most pleasurable CD recordings of a Baroque opera I've heard in recent years.