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Gluck: Ezio / Curtis, Hallenberg, Lehtipuu, Prina, Cencic

Release Date: 09/27/2011 
Label:  Erato   Catalog #: 70929   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Christoph W. Gluck
Performer:  Julian PrégardienTopi LehtipuuSonia PrinaAnn Hallenberg,   ... 
Conductor:  Alan Curtis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Il Complesso Barocco
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GLUCK Ezio Alan Curtis, cond; Max Emanuel Cencic ( Valentiniano III ); Sonia Prina ( Ezio ); Ann Hallenberg ( Fulvia ); Mayuko Karasawa ( Onoria ); Topi Lehtipuu ( Massimo ); Julian Prégardien ( Varo ); Il Complesso Barocco Read more class="BULLET12"> • VIRGIN 07092923 (2 CDs: 146:53 Text and Translation)

This is the fourth Ezio in three years, and the second in less than a year. Coincidence? I’ll just state for the useless opinions department my suspicion that Alan Curtis heard at least the first two—Stoehr/Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik (Coviello Classics 20713) and Hofstetter/Ludwigsburg Festival Orchestra (Oehms 918)—then thought he and his forces could do better. I can’t speak to the Hofstetter, which I haven’t heard, but in this version he easily surpasses the efforts of both Stoehr and Petrdlík/Prague Symphony Chamber Orchestra (Arcodiva UP0141-2).

Ezio is pre-reform, pre-Calzabigi Gluck. It uses a libretto by Metastasio, and received its premiere in Prague in 1750. The work was evidently well thought of. At a time when operas were applauded and discarded with a frequency similar to boy bands in modern culture, copyists’ scores of Ezio were distributed as far as London, Berlin, and Stuttgart. The work is a mix of conservative, Baroque-style arias and those of the fashionable galant , with nothing rote in its affective breadth. In the self-plagiarizing spirit of the age, Gluck would mine the score for future works—notably the aria “Se povero il ruscello” that showed up again six years later in his Antigono , and eventually ended up as part of Orfeo’ s Elysium Fields music.

I reviewed the Stoehr ( Fanfare 32:1) and the Petrdlík ( Fanfare 35:2), finding them severely wanting on editorial grounds. Though each laid claim to using the 1750 Prague edition, no original score exists. “Based on what we conjecture to be the original 1750 Prague edition” is an unwieldy phrase, but definitely would have proven more accurate. Petrdlík eliminated most of the recitative, cutting lengthy passages to a line or two, and featured arias that were half as long as the same pieces in Stoehr—sometimes eliminating verses, or cutting out middle sections and closing with oddly abbreviated opening ritornelli , as in Valentiniano’s “Dubbioso amante.” It’s difficult to believe that the bizarre shapes of some arias in Petrdlík’s version ever constituted part of an original performing version. Both Stoehr and Petrdlík include arias that the other lacks, as well.

Curtis’s own 1750 Ezio offers “Nasce al bosco,” as does Stoehr, but not Petrdlík. It does not include “Se un bell’ardire,” which Petrdlík alone supplies. Curtis and Stoehr are also a lot closer in the length and structure of arias, as well as recitative content, but Stoehr provides an act II recitative (“Varo, se amasti mai”) and aria (“Quel fingere affetto”) for Fulvia, while neither is in Curtis. I suspect the reason for this lurks in this seemingly innocent sentence, buried in the liner notes to this new release with no other explanation provided: “Some further cuts have been made to make the present performance more attractive to a modern audience.” I obviously can’t speak for anybody else, but as a member of that modern audience it certainly would have satisfied my curiosity to know the criteria used to make Ezio “more attractive” to me, and what precisely was cut as a result.

When it comes to performance, there’s no contest. Curtis wins, hands down. He’s fortunate to have among his singers two of his finest regulars. Ann Hallenberg, whom I described as stunning in the title role of Handel’s Tolomeo (Archiv 477 7106), is much the same here. She displays a flawless technique and a bright, dazzling sound in the upper range, with a contralto tinge in her chest range. Interpretatively, too, she’s without blame, and never hesitant to take an opportunity to musically express Fulvia’s emotional states. Her accompanied dramatic recitative “Misera dove son” and subsequent aria “Ah, non son io che parlo” are a high point in this recording, as Hallenberg lets loose a hailstorm of anger, pathos, and grief that make for stylish and exciting theater.

Also on hand is Sonia Prina as Ezio. She played Valentiniano to Hallenberg’s Ezio in Handel’s version of this opera, as recorded by Curtis (Archiv 477 8073). I praised at the time her ability to “handle coloratura with ease,” and criticized “a pronounced vibrato that occasionally mars the line.” The lower part of her voice sounds a bit constricted here, but the instrument functions as brilliantly as ever, the fearsome “Se fedele mi brama ill regnante” demonstrating an ability to soar, emote, and toss out perfectly accurate, even runs as though it were the simplest thing in the world to accomplish.

Mayuko Karasawa is a new name to me. She has an attractive bright sound and applies a good range of dynamics to her arias, but shows a tendency to open the throttle up all the way on too many occasions. The medium-paced runs in her “Peni tu per un’ingrata” are delivered securely and easily.

Max Emanuel Cencic reprises the role of Valentiniano, which he sang under Stoehr. I commended him previously for his pitch accuracy, tonal firmness, and good use of dynamics to help point phrasing, while criticizing his unwillingness to enunciate certain consonants, loss of power in the lower register, and complete lack of characterization. Certainly there’s more depth to his lower notes and a bit of characterization in this version, too, despite a uniform tone. The extra caress on a softer figure over aita in “Dubbioso amante” is typical, if not of the whole, then of a moderate attempt to provide some face in each of his solos. He still sings “fia, o, o” for fida lo sposo,” however.

Topi Lehtipuu has previously impressed me in Vivaldi’s La fida ninfa (Naïve 30410) and Ercole sul Termodonte (Virgin Classics 94545) as a disciplined lyric tenor who sometimes aspirates or smudges figurations at high speed. An oddly comical example of the latter occurs in figurations in the final section of “Va’ dal furor portata,” but in the slower “Tergi l’ingiuste lagrime” the beauty of his tone, phrasing, and expressive capabilities mark him for the intelligent, stylish performer he is.

Finally, Julian Prégardien’s brighter tenor makes for good contrast with Lehtipuu. He doesn’t have much to do, but his rather bumptious and inexpressive aria “Nasce al bosco in rozza cuna” is given a reasonably good treatment, with nice, cleanly articulated added figuration in the repeat section.

Only Michaela ?r?mová as Valentiniano (Petrdlík) and Andreas Post as Varo (Stoehr) offer any challenge to Curtis’s lineup. Cencic is not as expressive as ?r?mová but not easily dismissed on that score, either, while Prégardien equals Post’s stylishness and trumps him for tonal resources and agility. The rest of the teams assembled by Petrdlík and Stoehr range from the competent to the dreadful, with more of the latter in Stoehr. As for Curtis himself and Il Complesso Barocco, they deliver a focused performance, judiciously paced, and reasonably phrased. This Ezio wasn’t staged, but it comes across as theatrically alive, with all participants playing out their roles both in recitative and aria.

Barring an extraordinary entry from Hofstetter, then, this is the one to buy. With excellent sound, Italian text and English translation, we’ve finally gotten an Ezio worthy of the opera, and one that makes a good case for its creator’s craft.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Ezio by Christoph W. Gluck
Performer:  Julian Prégardien (Tenor), Topi Lehtipuu (Tenor), Sonia Prina (Alto),
Ann Hallenberg (Mezzo Soprano), Max Emanuel Cencic (Countertenor), Mayuko Karasava (Soprano)
Conductor:  Alan Curtis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Il Complesso Barocco
Period: Classical 
Written: 1750/1763; Prague, Czech Republ 

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