224. Ezio (Gluck)

  • Opera seria in 3 acts
  • Composer: Christoph Willibald Gluck
  • Libretto: Metastasio
  • First performed: Kotzentheater, Prague, spring 1750. Revised: Teatro Privilegiato vicino alla Corte, Vienna, 26th December 1763.

EZIO [Flavius Aetius], general, who loves FulviaAlto castrato 
VALENTINIANO [Valentinian III], Emperor, who loves FulviaSoprano castrato 
MASSIMO, Roman patrician, conspiring against ValentinianoTenor 
FULVIA, Massimo’s daughter, who loves EzioSoprano 
ONORIA, sister of Valentiniano, who loves Ezio  
VARO, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, confidant of Ezio  

SETTING: Rome, 453 AD


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Gluck famously declared war on opera seria, and set out to reform Italian opera from its vicissitudes – but before there was Gluck the reformer, there was Gluck the opera seria composer.

In his preface to Alceste (1767), Gluck announced that he had abolished all the “abuses” that disfigured opera: drama sacrificed to vocal display; nonsensical and convoluted plots; and castrati pretending to be virile men. “These abuses – whether through singers’ vanity or composers’ excessive complacency – have disfigured Italian opera for a long time, and made the most beautiful of all spectacles ridiculous and boring,” he wrote. So in Alceste and the sublime operas he wrote for the French stage, there were no castrati, no coloratura passages, no da capo arias, and no vocal virtuosity for its own sake.

But Gluck himself had abused opera with the best of them. He composed 20 Metastasian operas, all conscientiously conventional, with castrati performing bravura arias. Like Vinci and Hasse, he composed his Artaserse, his Semiramide riconosciuta, his La clemenza di Tito.

“He followed in a more or less absolute manner the forms adopted by the Italian composers who had preceded him,” Fétis wrote. “More than 20 operas written by him, whether in Italy, or in England, or in Vienna, showed only slight traces of individuality, and he worked in the theatre for 21 years before he considered reforming it.”

Ezio is one of Gluck’s better-known works from this period; it has been recorded four times, including a notable recording featuring Sonia Prina and (once again) Max Emanuel Cenčić.

Ezio is Flavius Aetius, the general who defeated Attila the Hun, and whom Valentinian III (r. 425–55) murdered with his own hands. Here is Gibbon’s description, in his splendid 18th-century prose:

Possible bust of Aetius.

But the emperor of the West, the feeble and dissolute Valentinian, who had reached his thirty-fifth year without attaining the age of reason or courage, abused this apparent security to undermine the foundations of his own throne by the murder of the patrician Aetius. From the instinct of a base and jealous mind, he hated the man who was universally celebrated as the terror of the barbarians and the support of the republic; and his new favourite, the eunuch Heraclius, awakened the emperor from the supine lethargy which might be disguised during the life of Placidia by the excuse of filial piety. The fame of Aetius, his wealth and dignity, the numerous and martial train of barbarian followers, his powerful dependents who filled the civil offices of the state, and the hopes of his son Gaudentius, who was already contracted to Eudoxia, the emperor’s daughter, had raised him above the rank of a subject. The ambitious designs, of which he was secretly accused, excited the fears as well as the resentment of Valentinian. Aetius himself, supported by the consciousness of his merit, his services, and perhaps his innocence, seems to have maintained a haughty and indiscreet behaviour. The patrician offended his sovereign by an hostile declaration; he aggravated the offence by compelling him to ratify with a solemn oath a treaty of reconciliation and alliance; he proclaimed his suspicions, he neglected his safety; and from a vain confidence that the enemy whom he despised was incapable even of a manly crime, he rashly ventured his person in the palace of Rome. Whilst he urged, perhaps with intemperate vehemence, the marriage of his son, Valentinian, drawing his sword – the first sword he had ever drawn – plunged it in the breast of a general who had saved his empire: his courtiers and eunuchs ambitiously struggled to imitate their master; and Aetius, pierced with an hundred wounds, fell dead in the royal presence. Boethius, the Praetorian praefect, was killed at the same moment; and before the event could be divulged, the principal friends of the patrician were summoned to the palace and separately murdered. The horrid deed, palliated by the specious names of justice and necessity, was immediately communicated by the emperor to his soldiers, his subjects, and his allies. The nations who were strangers or enemies to Aetius generously deplored the unworthy fate of a hero; the barbarians who had been attached to his service dissembled their grief and resentment; and the public contempt which had been so long entertained for Valentinian was at once converted into deep and universal abhorrence. Such sentiments seldom pervade the walls of a palace; yet the emperor was confounded by the honest reply of a Roman whose approbation he had not disdained to solicit.

“I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who cuts off his right hand with his left.”

Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 35
Bust of Valentinian III.

Valentinian then raped the wife of the wealthy senator Petronius Maximus.

Her tears when she returned home, her deep affliction, and the bitter reproaches against a husband whom she considered as the accomplice of his own shame, excited Maximus to a just revenge; the desire of revenge was stimulated by ambition; and he might reasonably aspire, by the free suffrage of the Roman senate, to the throne of a detested and despicable rival. Valentinian, who supposed that every human breast was devoid like his own of friendship and gratitude, had imprudently admitted among his guards several domestics and followers of Aetius. Two of these, of barbarian race, were persuaded to execute a sacred and honourable duty by punishing with death the assassin of their patron, and their intrepid courage did not long expect a favourable moment. Whilst Valentinian amused himself in the field of Mars with the spectacle of some military sports, they suddenly rushed upon him with drawn weapons, despatched the guilty Heraclius, and stabbed the emperor to the heart, without the least opposition from his numerous train, who seemed to rejoice in the tyrant’s death. Such was the fate of Valentinian the Third, the last Roman emperor of the family of Theodosius. He faithfully imitated the hereditary weakness of his cousin and his two uncles, without inheriting the gentleness, the purity, the innocence, which alleviate in their characters the want of spirit and ability. Valentinian was less excusable, since he had passions without virtues: even his religion was questionable; and though he never deviated into the paths of heresy, he scandalised the pious Christians by his attachment to the profane arts of magic and divination.

Ibid.

Composers of a later generation – Donizetti or Mercadante, say – would have relished this imperial melodrama: a villainous emperor who murders the general who saved the empire; the avenging husband who kills him (and is killed in turn); and, no doubt, a plum role for a prima donna as the unfortunate wife.

But tragedy was generally alien to the Metastasian spirit, with a couple of exceptions (Attilio Regolo and Catone in Utica). So Valentiniano lays a plot to murder Ezio, whom he believes is conspiring against him; but the trap is defanged, and Ezio survives. Massimo is the villain; while he has a legitimate grudge against Valentiniano, he is presented as a would-be usurper and conspirer, and a heavy father – exactly like Artabano in Artaserse. And the virtuous wife of Maximus is long dead; the two female rôles are Massimo’s daughter (again, like Semira in Artaserse or Marzia in Catone) and Valentiniano’s sister, in love with Ezio, and hurt because he does not love her (like Laodice in Siroe re di Persia). But it’s bootless to complain the libretto is untrue to history; that was the Metastasian style.

Gluck composed Ezio for Prague’s Teatro Nuovo in 1750. At that time, Metastasio’s libretto had already been set by Porpora (1728), Hasse (1730), and Handel (1732), among others. (Porpora’s version has a magnificent aria, “Se tu la reggi al volo”: YouTube.) Einstein considers it “one of the strongest and most valuable works Gluck wrote after the Milan operas and before his acquaintance with Count Durazzo, for he made special efforts for the Prague public, which was exacting and intelligent already in those days”.

Gluck revised the opera for Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1763, by which time he had already composed Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). He reused half of the score of Ezio, and incorporated seven arias from Il trionfo di Clelia (1763). He reorchestrated the score for a bigger orchestra; shortened the overture; and cut repeats.

Gluck’s 1750 version strikes me as competent but rather chilly, and a little colourless. It’s neither as good as the Neapolitan composers, nor Gluck’s own later works, but it is enjoyable, nonetheless. The score consists of 18 arias, a trio, and a chorus.

The two finest pieces in the opera are easily the Act I and II finales: Fulvia’s aria di paragone (boat) “Finché un zeffiro soave” and the trio “Passami il cor, tiranno!”. The aria is the sort of piece detractors think opera seria is all about: the soprano repeats the same verse half a dozen times for 10 minutes. But it’s a delightful 10 minutes.

The trio replaces three arias (one of Gluck’s reforms?); dramatic and exciting, it reminds me, somehow, of a trio finale in Mercadante’s late Roman opera, Virginia (1866).

For the rest, Ezio has a vigorous rage aria, “Se fedele mi brama il regnante” (YouTube), in Act I, and a moving scene, “Ecco alle mie catene” (YouTube), in Act II: the general has been arrested and condemned to death; he defies the emperor and bids farewell to his mistress, Fulvia. Valentiniano has two fine arias: “Se tu la reggio al volo”, skittish, and less majestic than Porpora’s; and the pensive “Dubbioso amante” (YouTube). Massimo has an attractive aria di paragone (stream and flood imagery) “Se povero il ruscello” in Act I; it later became in Orfeo ed Euridice as “Che puro ciel”.

Ezio is the sort of opera Gluck’s own reform operas would supplant. It cannot be compared to Iphigénie en Tauride, but it has its merits.


Recordings

Sonia Prina (Ezio), Max Emanuel Cenčić (Valentiniano), Ann Hallenberg (Fulvia), Topi Lehtipuu (Massimo), Julian Prégardien (Varo), and Mayuko Karasava (Onorio), with Il Complesso Barocco, conducted by Alan Curtis, Paris, 2008. Erato 0709292.


Works consulted

  • Bruce Alan Brown, notes to Ezio, Erato
  • Alfred Einstein, Gluck: The Master Musicians, trans. Eric Blom, London: J. M. Dent, 1936
  • F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris: Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869

2 thoughts on “224. Ezio (Gluck)

  1. I wonder if I should give this a try. Gluck’s reforms opera are terrific, especially Iphigénie en Tauride. Even if the plot is absurd (So hey, Iphigenia, HOW exactly did you know your mother killed your father and your brother killed your mother? “Oh, I had this dream. Let me phone Diana. She’ll know what to do”). Gluck was right about music serving the drama, castrati, and formulaic da capo arias. What I think he got wrong is that being showered with sixteenth notes spewn forth by a soprano is really, really thrilling. It’s what I want. I see no reason why we can’t have drama AND flashy, acrobatic vocal displays.

    I used to own a recording of Orfeo ed Euridice, conducted by John Elliot Gardner. He chose to include an impressively difficult and note-laden aria written by Gluck for a singer who insisted on having something to show off with. It sounded totally out of place and character, but Gluck was forced to oblige. It ended up being the most worn track.

    Liked by 1 person

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