12 May 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – EZIO (A. Hallenberg, K. Gauvin, S. Prina, M. Andersen, A.Z. Giustiniani, V. Priante; DGG/Archiv)


GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Ezio, HWV 29: A. Hallenberg (Ezio), K. Gauvin (Fulvia), S. Prina (Valentiniano), M. Andersen (Onoria), A.Z. Giustiniani (Massimo), V. Priante (Varo); Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis [recorded in the Teatro Comunale di Lonigo (Italy), during September 2008; DGG/Archiv 477 807 3]

When Ezio was first performed during the 1732 season, most of the operas upon which Händel’s reputation as a composer with a particular genius for opera rests were in the past, with a few notable exceptions (Alcina and Ariodante, in particular).  Receiving only five performances during its initial run (and never enjoying revival during Händel’s lifetime), Ezio failed to make an impression on the London audiences and further suggested, not least to Händel, that interest in Italian opera was waning to the extent that composing opere serie in the manner upon which Händel exercised his talents could no longer prove profitable.  Still, the premiere of Sosarme four weeks later was more successful, achieving eleven performances before capacity crowds, and restoring Händel’s confidence to a degree.

The liner notes by Dorothea Schröder that accompany Alan Curtis’ new recording of Ezio suggest that, based upon a contemporary assessment of the score (in which an anonymous pamphleteer deemed Ezio ‘most Masterly’ and Sosarme ‘most pleasing’), London audiences in 1732 were little prepared and perhaps even less inclined to enjoy a ‘masterly’ score such as Ezio, one in which exquisite music (performed by what was a magnificent cast: the famous alto castrato Senesino as Ezio, Anna Maria Strada del Pò as Fulvia, contralto Anna Bagnolesi as Valentiniano, contralto Francesca Bertolli as Onoria, tenor Giovanni Battista Pinacci as Massimo, and Händel’s beloved basso Antonio Montagnana as Varo) took precedence over a libretto that presented a conventionally convoluted tangle of ambitions, changing loyalties, and amorous intrigues.  This may be oversimplifying the explanation for the opera’s relative failure, but the libretto (an anonymous adaptation of a libretto by Pietro Metastasio that would later also be set by Gluck) presented problems that could hardly have been overcome with even the most adventurous music in the Baroque idiom.  It is almost certain that Händel recognized this reality.  He nonetheless applied the finest of his art to Ezio and produced a score that is both inventive and impressively distinguished.

It is perhaps important in striving to understand the reception Ezio received from its first audiences to consider the fact that the nature of Händel’s writing for the name-part further jeopardized the already-deteriorating relationship between the composer and Senesino.  It can be conjectured that, by the winter of 1732, Senesino – disenfranchised with Händel’s waning fortunes and sharp temperament – already had in his mind the defection to Porpora’s Opera of the Nobility that he would undertake in 1733.  The prospect of direct competition with the great Farinelli (who would join Porpora’s Company in 1734) was surely stressing for Senesino, and Händel was increasingly devoting his musical energies to producing music of emotional rather than vocal brilliance (and, with both Deborah and Athalia on the horizon in 1733, English oratorio rather than Italian opera).  With Ezio, Händel presented Senesino with a role that lacked an easily excerpted tour de force aria in which the full range of the star singer’s arsenal of bravura stunts was displayed.  True cognoscenti being as rare in Händel’s time as they are in our own, the overwhelming majority of Händel’s audiences attended Händel’s operas in order to hear Senesino in his element, expressing heroic sentiments through cascades of fiendish coloratura.  In that regard, both Senesino and London audiences were surely disappointed by Ezio.

This is not to say that Ezio lacks opportunities for extravagant vocal display.  There are fearsome difficulties throughout the score, but more prevalent are moments of reflection and thoughtful beauty, not least the ‘mad’ scene for Fulvia in the final act.  Whether or not Händel consciously sought to minimize the dramatic muddles inherent in the libretto by focusing on composing music of emotional directness, he managed – as, to an event greater extent, in Serse – to produce a score in which bravura passages emerge as natural progressions of the musical lines and the overall emphasis is on well-articulated psychological development.

It has been in scores of this nature, in which brilliance of execution could be said to matter less than the soulfulness of the approach, that Alan Curtis has occasionally faltered in past.  The integrity of Curtis’ scholarship, honed through his tenure at the University of California at Berkeley, can hardly be questioned, nor should it be forgotten that Curtis conducted in 1978 the groundbreaking recording of Händel’s Admeto that is widely considered the first step on the path leading to the historically-informed performance practices now enacted.  Curtis has countered his most impressive accomplishments with occasions of questionable insight: in short, the results have sometimes been considerably less meritorious than the thoughts that informed them.  Passages of great emotional significance have seemed bland or even perfunctory, impediments to the next opportunities for vigorous virtuosity.  Comparing entries in Curtis’ operatic discography suggests that this tendency is minimized when Curtis has at his disposal truly exceptional singers capable of tempering his musical anxiety by giving accounts of overtly emotional music that warrant greater pause.  This is evident, above all, in Curtis’ recordings of Radamisto and Alcina, both of which benefit musically and dramatically from the participation of the superb Joyce DiDonato.  Curtis knows how an opera by Händel ought to go, however, and he and his Il Complesso Barocco remain in Ezio as impressive and precise as they have been proved to be elsewhere in producing top-quality playing throughout and especially shaping recitatives in an effective, interesting manner.

In this performance, Curtis has among his cast at least one exquisite singer, another of those mezzo-sopranos to arrive on the operatic scene within the past two decades for whom singing Händel seems completely and gloriously natural.  Here singing Senesino’s title role, Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg continually inspires wonder that Senesino could have been anything but delighted with the music Händel composed for him.  Miss Hallenberg possesses every asset necessary for unqualified success in Händel: complete evenness throughout the range, absolute command of the tessitura, a technique that easily encompasses the florid demands, a timbre that can subtly suggest masculinity without resorting to harshness, and a serviceable trill.  In fact, Miss Hallenberg’s trill is rather more than serviceable, and her technical acumen is allied with a genuinely beautiful voice, fluidly produced.  Throughout the opera, Miss Hallenberg sings with charm, accuracy, and honeyed tone, applying ornamentation that is virtually always interesting without being overwrought.  Even in the context of a score that lacks the opportunities for bravura display found in other Händel operas, Miss Hallenberg contributes singing worthy of comparison with the finest Händel singing on records.

Owing in part to very successful appearances in productions by the Boston Early Musical Festival, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin enjoys a reputation as something of a Baroque prima donna.  Her recordings have created a suspicion, at least for this listener, that something vital is lost in the context of an audio-only recording.  Miss Gauvin’s performance as Fulvia in this recording does much to vindicate her reputation and confirm her standing as a very fine practitioner of the craft of Baroque singing, however.  Fulvia’s music culminates in the aforementioned ‘mad’ scene in the final act, and Miss Gauvin rises to the novelty of the music without overdoing the histrionics or blurring the suffering of her character with volleys of interpolated pyrotechnics.  In this performance, Miss Gauvin displays an understanding of the oft-overlooked fact that simplicity is at the heart of Händel’s finest music, and the multifaceted loveliness of Miss Gauvin’s singing is all the more effective for it.

Valentiniano also plays a vital part in the drama (and, one could argue, is even the most important role in Gluck’s setting of the libretto), a fact that is put forth with compelling impact by Italian contralto Sonia Prina.  In the interest of full disclosure, it must be granted that in this performance Miss Prina is not so secure of tone or fleet of execution as she has often been, but it is an unquestionable pleasure to hear a genuine contralto – perhaps the rarest commodity among contemporary operatic voices – in this music (or in any music, for that matter).  What is never a matter for debate is that Miss Prina knows her way round an opera by Händel, every difficulty taken in stride even when the voice is not delivering at full capacity.  Still, turning to the evidence of other Händel recordings that have been released within the past five years or so, it can be said without hesitation that better results could have been had only from Miss Prina on her best form.  Miss Prina also has the benefit of native Italian to her credit, so it is not surprising that she displays slightly greater connection with her role and exploration of Valentiniano’s development.  If she ultimately falls slightly short of her own very high standard, Miss Prina contributes very capably to what is an uncommonly satisfying principal trio.

Mezzo-soprano Marianne Andersen is effective as Onoria but, in truth, little more.  Nothing is embarrassing or incorrect, but both the voice and the performance lack distinction.  Italian tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani has a voice with presence and tonal allure, and he enlivens his recitatives with boldness and native diction.  In Massimo’s arias, though, Mr. Giustiniani disappoints.  Willingness and commitment to the spirit of a particular aria are there in spades, but Mr. Giustiniani’s technique – at least at this point in his career – is not equal to the music.  As with Miss Andersen, nothing is embarrassing, but Mr. Giustiniani’s performance merely suffices when it should excite.  The role of Massimo is a rare instance in which Händel composed a significant operatic role for a tenor, and Mr. Giustiniani’s performance does not fully exploit this despite displaying a basically lovely voice that promises better things.

Italian bass (really more bass-baritone than true bass, in my opinion) Vito Priante offers his typical security and comfort with the style in his performance as Varo.  In fact, Mr. Priante is more impressive in this performance than he has been in a few other of his recent recordings, perhaps because the music Händel composed for Montagnana is of such high quality.  There is some business in the lower register that needs sorting out, but Mr. Priante never falls into the trap of ranting through his more difficult music.  Mr. Priante is a good singer who reliably turns in good performances, but he achieves something better than that in this recording.  If ultimately not the last word on Händel bass singing, it is a thoroughly invigorating, finely-wrought performance.

I leave to musicologists and scholars the tasks of discovering and debating why audiences of more than two centuries ago liked or disliked this or that score.  Whatever the trade-offs we endure in the conventional Verdi and Wagner repertories, we are fortunate to live and listen in an era in which obscure Baroque repertory is explored and recorded with regularity, even when levels of interest and global economic conditions present a grim certainty that a recording such as this Ezio will not sell tens of thousands of copies.  Many of these obscure Baroque scores that are unearthed, dusted off, and played before attentive audiences and studio microphones ultimately deserve their obscurity: there are instances in which, factors of changing tastes aside, audiences were surely right to politely applaud and then forget certain scores.  In the context of a staged performance, a more careful verdict on Ezio might be achieved.  With only this recording to consider, however, Ezio surely seems an opera that, while not of the magnificent quality of Händel’s greatest scores, shines through the haze of nearly three hundred years with ample power to entertain, impress, and even move a modern listener.