Imagine that you've turned on your local NPR station in the middle of this unfamiliar opera, and you're trying to guess the identity of the composer. Hmmm. It's too inventive for Galuppi and just plain too good for Hasse... Wait! I've got it! It's a lost opera by Vivaldi, composed in his last year, in 1741 in Vienna and just rediscovered!
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.