> Opera and Oratorio
Prina, Hallenberg, Karasawa; Cencic, Lehtipuu, J. Prégardien; Il Complesso Barocco, Curtis. Italian text and English translation. Virgin Classics 0709292/3 (2)
Gluck's Ezio is a perfect example of the rigid old opera seria he later attempted to reform by composing the powerfully theatrical Orfeo ed Euridice and Iphigénie en Tauride. If anyone understands the workings of opera seria, it's conductor Alan Curtis, whose period band, Il Complesso Barocco, along with their frequent vocal collaborators, add a new recording of Gluck's work to an impressive and award-winning discography.
Ezio was composed for the Prague opera season in 1750. Gluck later revised the work, but Metastasio's libretto had already been treated by Porpora, Hasse, Handel, Jommelli and others, and the heroine's final scena, "Misera! dove son?" would later be set by Mozart as a concert aria. The story, with its hot-tempered Roman emperor Valentinian, scheming general Maximilian and wronged military hero Aetius, is a better fit for Gluck's musical and theatrical language than for Handel's (judging by Curtis's earlier recording of Handel's Ezio), and none of the pieces here reek of empty virtuosity or pandering to singers. The arias reveal character, and the recitatives, though lengthy, are charged with emotion and plot twists.
Curtis's singers bring a wealth of variety and declamatory richness to these recitatives, and the harpsichord/cello team is attentive and unobtrusive. Leading the cast is mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina, an artist of such musicality and vocal flair that it's easy to take her skills for granted. She portrayed the prickly emperor Valentinian in Handel's version; here she brings out the libretto's hint that Ezio's arrogance (he's just defeated Attila the Hun, after all) contributes to his political troubles. Her singing, with its attractively open chest register and authoritative rhythmic backbone, is always a pleasure.
Ann Hallenberg, who had sung Handel's Ezio with sympathy, brings a similar warmth and nobility, along with a secure top register, to the role of the political pawn Fulvia, whose conciliatory nature finally explodes in outrage. Hallenberg is superb in the final act, biting into the recitative and using the leaps and angularity of the final aria, "Ah, non son io che parlo," to convey the character's unhinged, agitated state.
As Maximilian, tenor Topi Lehtipuu gets some stunning arias, which he delivers with honeyed tone and imaginative and varied ornamentation, along with vocal bite when needed. With its solo oboe and murmuring strings, "Se povero il ruscello" is a forerunner of Orfeo's placid and hypnotic "Che puro ciel," and Lehtipuu unfolds the long vocal line with lovely lyricism. Countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic's singing is always commanding, and he revels in the emperor Valentinian's imperious impatience, though he occasionally goes overboard with volume, as in "Per tutto il timore," and always takes cadenzas unpleasantly high.
In the secondary role of Onoria, soprano Mayuko Karasawa brings vocal temperament to the recitatives, but her quick vibrato can turn unsteady and pressed in the upper register.
Though Gluck's score has abundant writing for oboes and horns, the ear is constantly drawn to Curtis's exemplary string section, and to the warm, engaging sound so well captured by Virgin's sound engineers.
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