A Handel flop is revealed as a fascinating, serious dramatic opera
Another month, another wonderful Handel opera recording (and another conducted by Alan Curtis). And, notwithstanding the odd moment when one would wish the dramatic guns to blaze more fiercely, this is a performance of elegance, life and some marvellous singing (not least from the irresistible Karina Gauvin). A thought -- might
Ezio be seen as a sequel of sorts to Verdi’s
-- Gramophone [6/2009]
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HANDEL Ezio • Alan Curtis, cond; Sonia Prina (Valentiniano); Ann Hallenberg (Ezio); Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Massimo); Karina Gauvin (Fulvia); Marianne Andersen (Onoria); Vito Priante (Varo); Il Complesso Barocco (period instruments) • ARCHIV 477 8073 (3 CDs: 186:49 Text and Translation)
Ezio premiered on January 15, 1732. Despite high hopes for the work and the presence of much of the royal family after that first night, it was an abject failure, running five times before closing. This was a record for any of Handel’s English operas, prior to Berenice. No reviews, published or otherwise, appear to have survived of it, so we’re left wondering what exactly went wrong? Winton Dean, in his Handel’s Operas: 1726–1741, points to the contrived nature of the libretto, with its all too obvious pushing of characters into situations that lead to exit arias. Dorothea Schröder’s liner notes to the new set suggest several other possibilities: a pair of unbelievable characters, no chance for the great castrato Senesino to exhibit coloratura fireworks, cuts and the rearrangement of Metastasio’s text that interfered with its carefully devised balance. I would add one more: after a short overture and march, the action proper starts with a dull dog of a piece (“Se tu la reggi al volo”) in which Valentiniano hymns the patriotism and martial brilliance of Ezio. This is followed by two slow arias, both excellent—the first, Ezio’s “Pensa a serbarmi, o cara,” achingly beautiful—before a moderately paced aria of reasonable quality appears. Though I may be misreading it, I think Handel hamstrung his opera with this hesitant start.
But whatever its debut issues on the London stage, the work is filled with music of an almost uniformly high quality. Fulvia’s appeal against the disdain of a cruel parent, “Caro padre, a me non dei,” could melt a heart of stone, were it not Massimo’s shriveled heart; and her accompagnato, “Misera, dove son?” followed by “Ah, non son io che parlo,” though taken here too quickly, is a marvelously intense expression of grief conveyed by limping, foreshortened lines alternating with others that explode outwards swiftly.
Valentiniano’s “Per tutto il timore,” with its short, falling phrases over a busy, minor-key bass, does a good job of conveying a sense of moral exhaustion. Ezio’s “Recagli quell’ acciaro” mirrors honor struggling with anger, as the hero is arrested by guards from his misinformed sovereign. Nor should we forget Massimo’s act II aria, “Va dal furor portato,” a magnificent portrait of evil: hateful above a stabbing, relentless bass as he spurns his daughter in the first section; nastily wheedling over a softer, pause-filled, chromatic central section as he points out that should she announce his betrayal, she’ll be killing the father who gave her life. As simple and effectively as Handel sets the latter, it could still stand alongside the poison Iago pours into his master’s ear in Verdi’s Otello.
This recording is up against only one easily available competitor, with the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra led by Richard Auldon Clark (Vox 7503). There really isn’t much going for the latter. It is heavily edited, for one thing. While I don’t mind losing almost half of Valentiniano’s opening aria (2:56 vs. 5:27, at similar tempos), much else is completely cut, including Ezio’s angry “Se fedele mi brama,” Massimo’s smilingly devious “Il nocchier che si figura,” and Varo’s “Se un bell’ ardire”—and that’s just in act I, alone. Leaving aside other issues, his singers aren’t as good as those Curtis supplies. Clark’s Valentiniano, countertenor Raymond Pellerin, has trouble with even simple turns, much less elaborate coloratura. His Fulvia, Julianne Baird, has a very high, rather immature-sounding soprano that loses its proper pitch and acquires a shrill edge the higher it goes. Frederick Urrey, Clark’s Massimo, leaps cleanly and can trill, but has a poorly supported voice with an unusually weak lower range. Other vocal comparisons are no more in favor of the Vox set, whose engineering is tinny and possesses excessive echo. I suggest passing on it.
Two of my favorite current singers are among those Curtis employs, here, though I wouldn’t hesitate to point out their problems if any in the recording. Fortunately, that’s not necessary. Ann Hallenberg’s rich texture, refined cantabile, and subtle accenting all come together to make something magical out of Ezio’s “Pensa a serbarmi, o cara.” Her “Se fedele mi brama” in turn displays a nice emphasis on selected consonants and a broadened dynamic range to express anger, with excellent coloratura weaving its way through the da capo aria’s repeat like rising steam. Karina Gauvin’s fast vibrato adds an aura of fragility to the mentally battered Fulvia, while her excellent phrasing (such as the way she bows her voice to great effect in “Finché un zefiro soave,” limning the zephyr that keeps oceans in check) shows her using that voice with artistry. Both give us rounded dramatic portraits, as well.
For the rest, Sonia Prina’s alto is well enunciated and she handles coloratura with ease, but possesses a pronounced vibrato that occasionally mars the line (“So chi t’accese”). Mezzo Marianne Andersen also has excellent coloratura, but her perfectly even, rather maternal voice lacks edge, the more so the lower it goes. Vito Priante’s figures aren’t always secure, but his rich bass is welcome, and he pays close attention to dynamics. Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani’s tenor is throaty, but he phrases well, and has a good trill. I think he’s too restrained, however, and misses the chance to make something striking of Massimo’s seaminess.
Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco are their usual assured selves on this new release. Rhythmic detail propels the score forward, while the score’s at times richer than usual harmonic palette is subtly emphasized to good effect. I’ve indicated one important point above when my opinions diverge sharply from the recording’s chosen tempo, but elsewhere I find the musicians sensitive to dramatic variety and pacing. In addition, Curtis works well with his chosen singers, and always manages to set them off to great advantage. This is a rarer skill than one might imagine, especially in early-music operas where theories sometimes banish what we ordinary mortals regard as common sense.
With good engineering, a fine essay, the original text, and an English translation, we have an attractive Ezio now on hand. It’s well worth the purchase.