Cher Public

Ezio said than done

EzioGluck composed Ezio for the Carnival in Prague in 1750, a dozen years before he entered his so-called “reform” era. The piece was a hit for a year or two, then (as was usual) forgotten, its music available for judicious recycling. But its success was no freak: This is an exciting score, waiting for the properly schooled forces to restore it to the stage. There have been several happy European revivals lately but none in America. 

Ezio was therefore an inspired choice for Boston’s feisty Odyssey Opera to open its “When In Rome” festival, which it did on Friday night in the hundred-year-old Boston University Theater, a beautifully restored 890-seat room across the street from Symphony Hall. Ezio will be followed on June 8, 10 and 12 by Mozart’s Lucio Silla, another neglected seria worthy of attention.

Gluck was thirty-five when he composed this score, and his operas had triumphed in Milan, Venice, London, Dresden and Vienna. There is little indication that he thought opera required reform, the grand simplification that produced (manifesto and all) the half dozen late works that are all we generally hear of his music: Orfeo, Alceste, Armide, the Iphigenias. Ezio is an opera seria, a formal string of arias on a well-known Metastasio libretto, with that richer, more personal flavor to their melodic declamation that one associates with the mature Gluck, the ancestor of Mozart, Cherubini, Berlioz and Wagner.

The opera was created for two heroic castrati, the great general, Ezio, and his neurotic emperor, Valentiniano; a major prima donna part for Fulvia, whom they both love, and—surprise!—a tenor for deceitful Massimo, Fulvia’s vindictive father. One might have expected a bass for a conspirator, or another castrato—but perhaps those voice ranges were thought too frank. Massimo is the subtlest, most striking figure in the opera, and Gluck revels melodically in the tortuous whorls of his mind.

Metastasio’s dramatic arcs are predictable. Since the opera opens with Ezio’s triumphant reception in Rome after defeating Attila the Hun, cheered by the crowds, honored by the monarch, the drama requires that Act II end with him in despair, abandoned and betrayed by all, cursing his destiny, the sort of pre-intermission soliloquy great castrati made famous. It’s a poignant moment in Handel’s or Porpora’s setting, but Gluck omits it. Perhaps his title singer was not good at this sort of thing. We don’t know.

All we know is what replaced it: A trio, “Passami il cor tiranno,” for the treacherous Massimo, the desperate Fulvia, the bewildered emperor, all of them expressing their emotions at the crisis (someone has tried to assassinate the emperor! If not Ezio, then who?), in a lengthy but swiftly paced summation, that Joshua Major has staged (as he staged the whole evening) with constant activity, the singers hurling themselves about the stage and into each other’s faces. This melodious elaboration (with a middle section in a contrasting key), this sung activity, is not what one expects from an opera of 1750; it sounds like Mozart thirty years later. It is the direction opera would take in the following century.

Equally startling to those familiar with Gluck is Massimo’s “Se povero il ruscello.” Not just the melody but the orchestration are old friends, “Che puro ciel” from Orfeo. We expect the sublime mood of Orfeo’s first sight of Elysium. But in this original setting, Massimo uses this heavenly tune to suggest to the emperor that Ezio may be disloyal: Power flows like a stream, but what if someone dams it? (Metastasian simile there.) The contrasting middle section leads the gullible tyrant to doubt.

As sung by William Hite, the melody becomes seductively evil, a lulling of conscience. Hite’s gracious, perfectly schooled instrument expressed the double face of treachery with deceitful tenderness throughout the opera; his singing was always perfectly produced, the meaning perfectly judged.

When Massimo wasn’t twisting the minds of the emperor and the hero, he was commanding his daughter to keep her mouth shut. Fulvia is a role for a dramatic prima donna with two enormous solo scenas in which Gluck piles on opportunities. The range runs both high and low, but Jennifer Holloway, who has gradually moved from mezzo to soprano parts, easily carried its demands. She began her long Act II self-examination lying on her back, a posture that miraculously did not interfere with breath control or intricate ornamentation.

The voice is sizable and flexible, and never becomes shrill under emotional pressure. Fulvia is under a lot of it; indeed, at eleven o’clock, when you think the plot is on course at last and there’s nothing much left to happen, Gluck tosses her a mad scene. Holloway triumphed with it. Bring on the Huns and Vandals; she can take ’em.

The castrati roles of emperor and the general were given one to a countertenor the other to a mezzo. Both solutions are valid. Randall Scotting sang the ignoble Valentiniano III. His voice is large and flexible, easily filling the house, but tends to a hootiness at the top and it took him a couple of scenes to find the proper pitch. By the time of the extraordinary trio, he was very much in gear, and the emperor’s aria of self-doubt was engagingly funny, his psychic state mirrored in leaps from low to high.

Scotting has a muscular physique and the director could hardly wait to get his toga off, an assassination attempt at the end of Act I providing the opportunity. One must be impressed by a singer who can perform coloratura while having his bare torso wrapped in bandages. New Yorkers will have a chance to hear him next week as Operamission’s Rinaldo.

Ezio was sung by mezzo Brenda Patterson with proper martial posture but she sang poorly, indefinite of pitch and with a thin, astringent sound that contrasted unhappily with the warm, clear tones of every other singer in the cast. Happily, Gluck seems to have anticipated this when he cut Ezio’s prison lament and gave him very little to do in Act III.

The emperor’s sister, Onoria, was sung by mezzo Erica Petrocelli, whose role was, I suspect, cut by a da capo or two. That’s a pity. She has an agile, faultlessly pitched mezzo of quality to make one wish cuts had been opened or opportunities seized. At one point she and Flavia, both in love with Ezio, exchange a few lines of pointed recit, and their snippiness got them laughs. Any later composer—Mozart, Ponchielli, Strauss—would have made hay with this and given us a jealous duet, and these two singers would have had a grand time with it.

Jesse Darden, a tenor who sings Belmonte, has a clear, silvery tenor far too good for the adjutant role of Varo, and his arias gave great pleasure.

The set by Jian Jung (stairs, square columns) and the costumes by Rachel Padula Shufelt (basic black, purply shmattas for the royals) implied that Odyssey’s budget was being saved for the musicians, as is proper. You had to imagine late imperial Rome. We’ve all seen movies; we can do this. We didn’t have to imagine great music, because the musicians took care of that.

Gil Rose, the artistic and general director of Odyssey, led an orchestra of nineteen: oboes, horns and strings. The story’s mood-swings, each tune drawing its proper accompaniment, proceeded swiftly and clearly, the dramatic confrontations were effective, and he had no trouble communicating with singers who were upstage or lying down or writhing in psychological agony. Rose had already won my heart with his choice of repertory (in the fall, he’s presenting Dvorak’s Dimitrij, imagine that!), but the care and momentum of his Ezio and his taste in singers make Odyssey a company that bears close attention from all the opera lovers in the northeast.

Photo courtesy of Odyssey Opera.

  • Erratum: The girl is Fulvia not Flavia.
    Flavia is the Queen of Ruritania but that’s another stage property entirely.

  • Will

    Ezio was a revelation, the quality of the arias extraordinary in their variety of tone and depth of emotion, all of an extremely noble character. Ezio is a longish score but interest never flagged because Gluck was writing at the top of his game.

    I suspect that essentially the same scenic units, rearranged, will be used for Lucio Silla tonight and it’s a smart choice. While totally generic, the set pieces gave the singers what was needed to take possession of the stage when appropriate and they were, in general, an impressive lot.

    • Krunoslav

      I enjoyed EZIO but I found the arias indeed scarcely varied: almost any one of them could have been sung by any of the characters at some point in the show.

      Jennifer Holloway was outstanding.

  • Patrick Mack

    Mr. Yohalem, you consistently prove yourself to be the most thoughtful and erudite critics among us. A magnificent accounting of this performance.

    p.s. Singing on your back is extraordinarily easy (or stomach for that matter) as it allows the singer to support ‘or push’ against something tangible for a change. A trick voice teachers will often use to put students back in touch with their bodies. Remember Jeritza and Nilsson on their stomachs for ‘Vissi d’arte’ ? Not as hard as it looks.

    • armerjacquino

      A good trick, though. I had some singing to do in the prison scene of OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD last year and after one of the previews a friend of mine said ‘it was so amazing the way you sang all that lying down’. I hadn’t been: you can bet I did after that!

  • Krunoslav

    N.B: Erica Petrocelli is a soprano ( and a good one)!

    I do not find LUCIO SILLA to be unjustly neglected, having seen it 4 times in the last two decades (San Francisco, twice at Mostly Mozart, Santa Fe) with some really good Mozart singers (Cecilia Bartoli, Della Jones, Patricia Schuman, Gregory Kunde, Susan Graham, Sally Wolf, Vinson Cole, Ruth Welting, Jerry Hadley, Harolyn Blackwell, Monica Bacelli, etc etc)

    …and having been bored stiff nearly throughout. To me Mozart’s MITRIDATE is far more interesting musically and psychologically.

    • Hmm. La Monnaie gave us Mitridate this season and is giving us Lucio Silla next. I hope, by then, they will be out of their stuffy, noisy tent. Otherwise it may prove a trial -- for everyone: singers and players and conductor as well as the punters.

      • Well, I’m hoping for Ascanio in Alba, the only Mozart seria I’ve never heard. It’s probably terrible (it was a wedding celebration; Gangerl was about twelve), but I’m a completist. That and La Finta Semplice are the only ones I’ve never seen staged.

        • Perhaps La Monnaie will give us Ascanio in 2017-2018, by which time their tent, under the flight path to Brussels International Airport, should surely have been dismantled.

        • Krunoslav

          This was done at my college. Glad to heave seen it, but it makes LUCIO SILLA look like IDOMENEO by comparison.

    • Perles75

      Personal opinion, the most interesting of Mozart’s young operas is without contest the Mitridate. The libretto is the most interesting and carries the story forward (with some forgivable pits), and the music is very beautiful with some outstanding arias and some moments of genuine drama. I watched on video both recent productions in Paris and Bruxelles and I liked them both with neither of them being the “definitive” Mitridate (IMO the Paris one got the better singers but with a supremely boring staging, while I liked a lot the idea of the Bruxelles staging even if it somehow loses its path a bit in the second half of the opera, but the singers, albeit good, weren’t at the level of Paris’).

      Lucio Silla’s story feels more static and convoluted, without really memorable characters, and the arias are also more conventional. But it has some good tense moments. I never really got into the story though.

      Poor Ascanio cannot be really compared considering it’s basically a wedding serenata without plot. Also not the most inspired piece of music by Mozart.

  • Grateful as always to John for introducing me to a work I’d never heard of before.

  • Camille

    Very interesting to think of his work pre-reform, revolution, and riot. Much food for thought, so thank you well, Meister.

    In particular, it was good of you to draw out the fact that subsequent composers owe Gluck a debt as it’s not so commonly acknowledged, even if Berlioz does go on long toots about him for certain.

    When Christine Brewer made her two appearances at the MET in 2003, the first thing I heard in her voice was a future Alceste. Alas, ’twas not to be.

    I thought Jennifer Holloway was the lady who originated “And I tell you I’m not going” in the Broadway “Dreamgirls”??? I always get Jennifers all mixed up in the same barrel together.

  • Camille

    Anyone else wondering about Dvorak’s Dimitrij, as am I? It would appear to be “Dynasty, Take Two”, and probably worth the trip to Boston, at least from what Donal Henahan describes of a performance by good old Collegiate Chorale here in NYC back as far as 1984:

    I’d guess that it would really depend a lot upon the quality of the main protagonist and the two sopranos and after my unhappy experience with Le Cid last fall, I’d have to be assured of those singers in these parts to chance a schlep that far. Undecided, but wondering. Perhaps a recording has surfaced in the interim as the reviewer says there is none recommendable? Youtube, here I come.

    • Camille

      Recommendable Dimitrij or not, here is at least one:

      If you can’t handle all that here is beautiful Benackova in an excerpt:

      • Well that certainly sounds alright.

        • Camille

          Bear in mind that Benackova could sing the Prague yellow pages and make it sound good.

          Here is the estimable and equally beautiful sounding Ludmila Dvorakova in an aria of Xenie’s in a contrasting mood:

          For years and years I’ve heard the name of Dvorakova without actually having heard her. That will change, now I’ve discovered this sound. She died only last year and into her nineties, the terrible victim of a fire in her home, apparently? If so, a lamentable and heartrending fate for one so beautiful and expressive. RIP

          • You saw the comment: “The only stereo recording, Albrecht with the Czech Philharmonic etc is fine, you know this one?”

          • Bill

            Dvorakova had a very rich sound and I thought she was
            stupendous as the Kusterin in Jenufa and as Senta
            (with Hotter) and as Barak’s wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten -- all in the 1965-66 time frame. She made
            less of an impression at the Met but her roles there
            (in 3 seasons) paralleled Nilsson which was a difficult
            comparison though Dvorakova’s voice had more of a Flagsad warmth in the middle than Nilsson’s did. Dvorakova’s main opera house was in East Berlin not as easy to visit as the West German opera houses at the time but she did appear at Bayreuth and in Vienna on occasion. I liked Dvorakova’s Venus (to Rysanek’s
            Elisabeth) in Bayreuth which I then had on open reel tape.

      • I suppose if you spent enough time in Prague -- avoiding the hordes at weekends -- you might eventually hear it. I see over the next few months they have The Jacobin and the Devil and Kate, as well as more Rusalkas than you could shake a stick (or fishing rod) at. As well as a 1960s work with the intriguing name of Krakatit.

        • Now this has got me wishing I were in Prague again. My best night at the opera in 2103 was at the National.

          • 2103 was supposed, of course, to be 2013.

            The National is a very beautiful house, recently renovated.

        • Camille

          Hahaha! I’d shake a fishing pole at Krakatit just for curiosity’s sake!

          I envy you your experiences there as it is supposed to be a wonderful house with, I reckon, a devoted and loving following and the best place or one of them to hear Dvorak.

          Have you written about the LEAR performances on your blog, NPW? I’m sure there are some here who would appreciate hearing about it.

          So glad you had such a good third act experience of Tristan as once you’ve heard it done well it changes everything about the perception of the work, or it did for me. First act is Isolde Rant, third act is Tristan Rant, and second act is Mutual Union Rant. The perfect triptych if it works out.

          • I read your earlier comments on Tristan.

            Yes, Lear was great and I’ve written it up. In my enthusiasm I also posted, somewhere here on Parterre, a trailer clip from the Paris Opera.

            • Camille

              Bon! Merci, mon ami.

            • It was one of those rare and highly satisfying occasions when everything went right. There wasn’t even any audience noise -- I suppose the works outings, corporate events and tour groups steered clear.

          • -- Do you think you could sing Kašlík?
            -- Well, I’m willing to have a Krakatit.

    • I was at that Dimitrij!

      When Martina Arroyo sang, “A Polish princess I shall always be!” she brought down the house.

      • Camille

        It was sung in English, then?

        What notes, approximately, was that phrase hurled out upon?

        You must have been a child at the time so I don’t expect you to recall any of it, though.

    • vilbastarda

      Camille, the singers for Dimitrij are all Czech, so I have high hopes that they know what they are doing, have the style in their veins, and will sing in their native language, a huge plus. I actually have more reservations for Gil Rose, as I find his conducting much too square most of the times. And so far he hasn’t done anything to show even an ounce of slavic spirit. Actually the shortcomings of last year’s Cid were as much his as they were the singers’, imo.

      But Ezio was unexpectedly satisfying indeed. Music was wonderful, best Gluck money can buy. Minimal staging, and school like blocking actually worked great, as it didn’t interfere with the music, and mostly great singing. Thanks to Mt Yohalem for the great review, says much more eloquently how I felt about it too.

      • Camille

        Why thank you for letting me know. That is quite encouraging. For a rarely done opera it would take a really exceptional foreigner to cope with an isolated performance such as this one.

        About Le Cid, and I never commented at the time, I had a number of grave misgivings and don’t care to go into them now or ever, for I appreciated the spirit of acceptance of this grand old French bombe, something I love but despair of. It was a spur of the moment last minute decision and it left me unhappy as I hadn’t trusted my first instinct: Stay Home, Girl! So I’d really have to be convinced of their next project and your information helps me out with that consideration. They ARE ambitious, it’s true and I’m grateful they did DelTredici’s ALICE recently (via a grant) but they still have a lot to make up to me to get me up there again after the spoiled Cid.

        Thanks vilbastarda!

    • gustave of montreal

      It’s better known as BORIS GODUNOV II.

      • Camille

        Merci, M. Gustave chéri, mais je déjà savais cela!

        You must be terribly happy now that your compatriote has been elected Roi du MET and YOU are now the elect representative from Montréal to provide us with All-Yannick all the time information news. I hope you will accept your new position.

    • grimoaldo

      Yes, the drama of “Dimitrij” is “what happened after Boris Godunov ends” and it is really a magnificent work both musically and dramatically. Big choruses, a French grand opera really only in Czech, I saw an unforgettable concert performance at the Proms
      18:30 Sunday 18 Jul 2004 Royal Albert Hall
      Antonin Dvorak
      Dimitrij, Op 64 (original 1882 version)
      Proms premiere
      Dagmar Pecková Marfa Ivanovna
      Stuart Skelton Dimitrij Ivanovi?
      Richard Hickox Conductor
      Elena Prokina Marina Mníškova
      Peter Coleman-Wright Petr Fedorovi? Basmanov
      Krassimira Stoyanova Xenie Borisovna
      Dalibor Jenis Prince Vasilij Šujský
      Manfred Hemm Jov, Patriarch of Moscow
      Jared Holt N?borský
      Stanislav Be?a?ka Bu?inský
      BBC National Orchestra of Wales (pre-1993, BBC Welsh SO)
      Slovak Philharmonic Choir

      It was the first time I saw Stuart Skelton and Stoyanova and I walked out of the performance wondering why they were not world famous stars, finally Skelton is achieving the status I felt he deserved 12 years ago.
      The performance and the work were mind-glowing, magnificent. I really recommend any chance to see this stupendous work.

      • grimoaldo

        I meant to say “mind-*blowing* ” but maybe “glowing” is also appropriate.

      • Camille

        Thank you for sharing, grimoaldo, and I SO hope Mr Skelton will live up to the good word I have heard from various persons this fall, as our Tristan. I am so looking forward to it and very grateful to have an opportunity to hear it once more, especially with Stemme whom I esteem so highly in Wagner and who has such a warm and committed persona on stage.

        I rather like mind-glowing. Oft times I will come out of a performance with so many tunes or motifs buzzing around in my brain I feel like a musical marquee. It’s hard to shrinkwrap your brain and turn back to the meagre banality of so much in existing, let alone, the effing NYC subways, the bane of my existence.

        Your recommendation is highly encouraging to me and so, thanks.

      • Camille

        Yes, “Meyerbeerian” it appears to be and therein lies the rub! It came along at the wrong time when the world had all gone “Parsifal”, and that would account in part for its disappearance into the void. Since the first time I heard a Dvorak opera twenty-five years ago all I could think at that performance was “where in hell has this music been buried all these years?? It’s beautiful!”

        I will study it from now and until it is performed and then make a decision to go, or not.

        • Dvorak did not really have the opera gene. I’ve never been really impressed with any of his works, though I’ve never heard The Devil and Kate. But Russalka, Armida, Jakobin and Dmitrij do not impress.

          • Camille

            Why is it you say that Herr Hans Lick? Are you being unduly influenced by your friend Brahms in his aversion to “la fome fatale”, and thinking that by avoiding it the composer will keep his music “pure”?

            Frankly I don’t see how anyone could deny Rusalka as a well-made opera that stands up on its own and not just as a national school piece. The universal appeal of “The Song to the Moon” cuts a wide swath. Armida is the only other one I’ve had experience listening to. It did go on at length and never tied things together in a way which grabbed my wttention sufficiently but it was not bad, and I would have another listen to it again someday if not for laziness. The Vanda (which Jungfer posted a few months back), seems to helong to the nationalistic school of cantatas and so he it! The rest of them I am wholly unfamiliar with so I ciuldn’t know how they are lacking this opera gene.

            Maybe I’ll look into the Jacobin, but first I’ve got to get through this thus far dreary sounding recording of Dimitrij to hear what nuggets of gold may be hidden.

            Does Pacini have more an opera gene than Dvorak, out of curiosity, and what defines an opera gene for you?

            • Camille

              “La foRme fatale”.

              First typo of the day.

            • The Song to the Moon occurs ten minutes into Russalka and Jezibaba’s song, which is fun, comes soon after. The rest of the opera is dull. That’s what I mean by “Dvorak didn’t have the opera gene.” Symphonies, trios, quartets, quintets — to die for. Operas, no.

              Pacini certainly did have the opera gene! He wrote sixty or seventy, had his first triumphs at 29 and was still composing forty years later, with occasional success. He did not focus his librettists very skillfully, and he wasn’t really a theatrical natural (like Donizetti and Verdi), but his melodies are glorious and his finales often thrilling. If they are sung properly, they play very well indeed.

            • Bill

              I could not disagree more with Hans Lick regarding
              Dvorak’s operas. Rusalka has one of the richest scores of music of any opera -- Jacobin is also gorgeous and
              The Devil and Kate which I have seen twice but with
              inability to read the program (hence the story a bit
              confusing for a non-czech speaker) had some ravishing music. I have seen three productions of Rusalka in
              Vienna (one at the Volksoper), 3 in Prague, 2 eadh in
              Brno and in Bratislava and one (same as the first one
              in Vienna) at the Met for a total of 39 performances
              of the opera including 6 performances of the opera
              in Vienna with the grandiose Benackova and also 6 with her at the Met -- I never ever tire of this opera, the emotions (all built into the music), and only wish
              I had discovered Dvorak’s operas earlier in my
              operatic life having skipped a successful production
              at the Volksoper circa 1965. AS I recall most all of the performances of Rusalka at the Met first with
              Benackova and then the revivals with Fleming (one of her best roles) sold considerably better than quite a bit of the Puccini and Donizetti we have had lately. There is such emotion (perhaps more subtle than some of the
              Italian verismo we get to hear) in Dvorak’s brilliant orchestrations.

            • grimoaldo

              It could well be that “Dimitrij” would not have had such an effect on me in another performance, but that one at the Proms was really stunning. Elena Prokina as the villainous Marina was also unforgettable, there was a big duet with a bass I think and she left the concert platform and the audience applauded until she came back, which took quite a while as she had to walk around the back of the platform and down some stairs, the audience clamourously cheering all the while. She was terrific, I saw her quite often back then, she doesn’t seem to be around any more.

            • grimoaldo


              Review from the Guardian of that Proms performance

              ” Dvorak’s opera Dimitrij is usually dismissed as a cumbersome sequel to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a criticism that is only partly true… the Prom performance was hugely impressive..The almost unsingable title role was taken by tenor Stuart Skelton, negotiating the implacable tessitura with almost indecent ease… the great performance came from the singing actress Elena Prokina as Marina -- a perfect and compelling evocation of a woman at once seductive and monstrous.”

      • gustave of montreal

        It was broadcast on Radio-Canada-FM perhaps 15 years ago.

  • leonora3

    Perhaps Dvorak didn’t have the gene for a big drama on the stage but he did have the gene for beautiful music!
    A few years ago I saw Hansel and Gretel at Met. I can imagine lovely fairy tale Devil and Kate in any theatre. It’s a great piece for children with lovely music (and for adults like me who do not look in opera for existential explanation of the world, as well).
    In opera Jacobin you have everything beautiful unique music, great emotions and love to a spouse, parent’s love, love to the country -- not ecstasy, not fatum and tragedy in an ancient dimension. But orchestral music and great solos and choirs including children’s choir (that would be stg for Met choir) would be worth to be performed and heard. Yes, why and ‘where in hell has this music been buried all these years?? It’s beautiful!’

    • Krunoslav

      RUSALKA has a wonderful score. The Vodnik’s lament should be added to the treasures, and-- especially- the tragic final scene, among the greatest and most wrenching last 15 minutes of any opera IMO.

      I have seen THE DEVIL AND KATE twice in Prague and am glad to have done so but to me it was transparently “not for export”: too rooted in Czech folklore. HANSEL UND GRETEL is more universal and also has a much better score. Looking firward to hearing DIMITRIJ and would love to hear THE JACOBINS.

      • PCally

        “the tragic final scene, among the greatest and most wrenching last 15 minutes of any opera IMO.”

        Sums up my feelings perfectly and is more or less the reason why this is one of my all time favorites. People who think the opera is all about the main aria clearly haven’t heard that final duet, one of the most astonishing moments of any opera I’ve heard. The first time I saw the opera at the met with Fleming I loved the opera and then when the final duet reached it’s peak I was on another level entirely.

  • Ilka Saro

    Congratulation on the title for this article! Many puns produce chuckles and grins. It is the rare pun that produces a genuine groan!