Handel’s Ezio

Written by: Colin Anderson

As the 2005 London Handel Festival gets under way, his opera Ezio is due four performances at the Royal College of Music. Conductor Laurence Cummings discusses the work and Handel himself…

Despite inclement weather and poor transport, my trip to the Royal College of Music was worth it. Laurence Cummings has a knack of painting pictures, just like his hero George Frideric Handel. Finding a place to chat meant a hike around the RCM, which was instructive to see the extent of the facilities, not least the library, a haven of quietude. The RCM’s Britten Theatre, that hosts Handel’s opera Ezio for four performances, is similarly inviting. Ezio is “classic opera seria”, says Laurence, and will be given complete and fully staged, “with all the repeats, not a note missed! Characters always make an emotional journey during the arias and decorate on the repeat, partly to show-off their prowess and also to show their emotional development.”

Laurence describes the music of Ezio as being of “such high quality, and the drama is good too; it’s a very interesting story. Metastasio paints the characters very well, and Handel’s good at that too – between them, they’ve done a brilliant job!” Sung in Italian with surtitles, this production of Ezio uses “a mix of editions and we’re also lucky that we can go to the British Library and check the microfilm of the autograph. Ezio is a countertenor as is Valentiniano the wicked Emperor, hero and anti-hero. Fulvia, the soprano, is Ezio’s beloved, and Fulvia’s father is the warped one! The costumes and sets are traditional. The director William Relton and myself work very closely together. We rehearse every scene by speaking it first and then we put the notes back in; you can get into terrible habits of just singing words that you don’t mean; the drama is matched with the music.”

Ezio is “great for the orchestra, too; the trumpet makes a big impact. A lot of the instruments are featured as soloists, even a little bit of viola; I look forward to the orchestra’s repertoire of jokes for that.” The singers are “all postgraduate students. The great thing about working with young singers is that they are so fresh and open to ideas.” Among their number is Elizabeth Watts (Fulvia) who made a big impression at the RCM recently in Tippett’s Symphony No.3: “there are some show-stopping arias for her.”

We get to discuss how opera might have sounded in Handel’s day. “Ezio was written in London for Italian singers that Handel had brought over. Italian singers were the fashion, famous for long notes, breath control and tremendous virtuosity. We must get over the idea of being tasteful, which can be shocking. You can’t be literal to the text. We’re here fresh for modern audiences using the same tools that they used. I tell my students that the duty of any musician is to move the soul of your listener. That’s what any eighteenth-century treatise will tell you; they were steeped in rhetoric and the language of persuasion. Playing the notes isn’t enough.”

As for Handel himself, and beyond Messiah and Water Music (“just because they are popular doesn’t mean they’re not great; Messiah is just brilliant”), Laurence relishes Handel for his “spontaneity and being simple. That’s the beauty of it. It’s this thing of painting human emotions and what he does with the material is incredible. A good piece ends up being extraordinary, really special. You feel you can let go; the ideal thing for a singer, it’s natural.”

With Ezio, the 2005 London Handel Festival begins. It continues until 15 May. “Handel’s of his national characteristic when he’s in each place. He’s youthful and spring-like in Italy, and then he moved to England and he was very happy. He was involved with the noble families of Rome and similarly he had patronage from the Earl of Burlington and Duke of Chandos, a circle of educated, intelligent and literate people who appreciated him and he appreciated them. He always courted the royal family and taught George the Second’s children the harpsichord. You feel you know him because he had such a good understanding of the human condition. There can be a sense of joy that is overwhelming.”



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