Handel’s Ezio

Ezio [An Opera in Three Acts; Libretto adapted from Pietro Metastasio]

Ezio – Tim Mead
Fulvia – Elizabeth Watts
Valentiniano – Philip Viveash
Onoria – Anna Grevelius
Massimo – Eamonn Mulhall
Varo – George Matheakakis

London Handel Orchestra
Laurence Cummings

William Relton – director
Roy Bell – designer
Colin Peters – lighting designer

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 15 March, 2005
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

Among the reasons cited for the failure of Ezio (it closed after only five performances at the King’s Theatre in 1732) are the length of the recitatives and the fact that the singing consists almost exclusively of solo da capo arias (there is only the final brief chorus to provide the exception). But the quality of the arias surely make up for any disappointments – just as the quality of the singing in the final two acts and the superb orchestral playing overall during this first-night performance made up for a less than inspired start.

Briefly, the plot revolves around the Roman hero Ezio’s secret love for Fulvia (the daughter of nobleman Massimo, whom the Emperor Valentiniano had previously wronged) and his refusal to yield to the wishes of the Emperor by both renouncing this love (the Emperor desires Fulvia for himself) and confessing to being involved in a conspiracy (actually initiated by the vengeful Massimo). Suffice to say that by the end all wrongs are both righted and forgiven, the final chorus bringing the opera to a cheerful close.

The staging here is minimal, featuring a set which consisted of a broad flight of steps leading to a platform surrounded by four broken square pillars of various heights; the whole was arranged at an oblique angle to the front of the stage and painted in ochre. The costumes were traditional Georgian (in keeping with the ‘period’ performance of the work); the lighting was unfussy and served mainly to highlight the performers as required. In the pit were eight violins (under leader Adrian Butterfield), two each of violas, cellos, flutes, oboes (swapped occasionally for recorders), bassoons and horns, and one each of double bass, trumpet and harpsichord (Laurence Cummings directing from a second harpsichord).

Eamonn Mulhall was generally disappointing as the scheming Massimo, his technique not secure enough to allow the requisite expressiveness either in his singing or acting; and, unlike the other principals, he never got much better – although his “Se povero il ruscello”, in which he further stirs up trouble by comparing Ezio’s apparent ambition to a restricted stream straining to reach the ocean, was very exciting. Philip Viveash’s Valentiniano certainly looked the part, his generous figure draped variously in kingly attire; however he tended to camp it up a bit and his voice wasn’t quite up to the demands of his histrionics (the spoilt-brat-not-getting-his-own-way smashing of crockery during “Sò chi t’accese”, although obviously not his idea, was just plain ridiculous). His voice did however improve in power and quality as it warmed up (and, apparently, he was labouring under a throat infection), as did Tim Mead’s: his Ezio came across as proud, vain and uncompromising, the voice growing in stature and blossoming in the Act Three “Se la mia vita” (the score here also enriched by extensive use of horns, recorders and other instrumental soloists). Onoria, Valentiniano’s sister and secretly in love with Ezio, was competently played and sung by Anna Grevelius; her voice gradually on clarity and richness to perfectly compliment some finely executed ornamentation.

George Matheakakis as Varo and Elizabeth Watts as Fulvia were consistently good throughout, both in dramatic and vocal terms. Matheakakis’s bass was firm and ringing, his “Nasce al bosco”, wherein he muses on the turning of Fortune’s wheel, particularly well sung as he freely interacted with the extras playing dice and cards. Watts, on the other hand, was the singer of the evening, her voice possessing a sweetness of tone combined with a power and evenness throughout all registers. These, as well as her superlative dramatic skills, were made most evident in the extraordinary Act Three lament for the supposedly-slain Ezio “Ah! non so io che parlo” – although the heroic “La mia costanza” was also very fine, displaying superior vocal dexterity.

For me, though, the real star of the night was the orchestra, which not only kick-started each act with instrumental music whose mood irradiated the drama to follow but whose fiery playing added so much to the arias, not least when the singing was sometimes lacklustre – no mean feat. On balance, a very successful opening night of a rare work that deserves to be better known.

  • Ezio continues on 17, 19 & 21 March at 7 o’clock at the Royal College of Music
  • Tickets available from the London Handel Festival: 01460 54660
  • London Handel Festival

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