Gluck Before Gluck

ezioWhen you study or teach music history, Christoph Willibald Gluck has a very specific function: he swoops down and cuts through the extravagance of Baroque opera with his reform opera. Most of the works by Gluck performed today are from this reform era, namely both Iphigénie operas, Alceste, and, most famously, Orfeo ed Euridice. They’re beautiful, they’re elegant, they’re austere, they can sometimes be, IMO, rather boring.

But Gluck wrote lots of operas before he–as most music history surveys would have it–posted his 95 theses on some stage door. Such is his 1750/revised 1763 opera Ezio, the first half of the Boston company Odyssey Opera’s “When in Rome” festival. (The second half, Mozart’s early Lucio Silla, will be performed next week.) Note that 1763 is actually a year after the premiere of Orfeo, suggesting that we (i.e., those of us who are used to teaching our one class on Gluck) shouldn’t treat reform opera like a teleological lightning bolt. Ezio‘s libretto is a golden Metastasio oldie, and was also set by Handel and Porpora and almost everyone else. The Wikipedia summary of the Gluck is hilariously dismissive of the plot:

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And honestly that’s kind of the feeling I got when watching it. The “many plot turns” are indeed many and none seem to have a ton of gravity. In usual opera seria fashion, the arias are reactions to these recitative plot twists, and since arias are much more exciting and showy than recit this means you tend to forget why this reacting is happening and just enjoy it (or, er, not enjoy it). Sometimes the characterization is not so much nuanced as just odd: villainous Massimo spends way more time singing lovely lyrical arias about streams and flowers than he does swearing vengeance, even though the plot is basically powered by his tireless and treacherous quest for vengeance. (The emperor tried to seduce his wife.) The arias are almost all da capo affairs. There’s one trio and a little lieto fine ensemble, no chorus or dances. In other words, that’s a lot of arias. So it seems to me that the main attraction is the range of moods and sentiments offered by these arias, not the plot as such.

My attempt to map the plot
My attempt to map the plot

It’s an intriguing but also a peculiar repertoire choice (particularly for a city with a very spotty history of opera–it’s not like everyone could compare it to the Alceste they saw in the fall). Odyssey is a new company that emerged from the wreckage of Opera Boston, and I don’t pretend to understand the complex topography or history of Boston’s many companies. They obviously don’t have huge resources but this was a respectably cast, well played, and musically very credible production. The 900-seat Boston University Theatre (while we still can call it that, while it still exists) is an ideal size for this sort of opera. The small, modern instrument orchestra played with energy and sparkle, and Gil Rose’s conducting was mostly on the speedy side.

Staging, however, was another matter. Despite some fine singing, this opera never convinced me of its necessity. Joshua Major’s production was very basic. Jian Jung’s set gave us an indeterminate set of walls and some square columns and Rachel Padula Shufelt’s costumes vaguely mixed modern and ancient Roman elements by way of, for maiden Fulvia, senior prom. It established the relationships between the characters, but the opera never seemed to reflect any kind of larger world or idea. The blocking kept people moving around the stage, but much of it isn’t clearly motivated (character stands up, two flunkies move the cube he was sitting on to a different part of the stage, he goes and sits down there). The direction illuminates the, er, more involved elements of the plot, but it rarely develops stuff beyond their basic motivation.

I almost wonder if this is a staging more fit for the lean later Gluck. This utter simplicity is an easier sell with reform opera’s linear action and clear dramatic stakes. But pre-reform opera requires a little more dramatic variety and creativity to make things interesting, and this production ends up being very bland. The best staging in this production is Fulvia’s final aria: for almost the first time, the whole stage darkens and she’s illuminated by a special (a lighting instrument that highlights a particular moment) sitting extreme downstage right. It creates a unique, intimate, dark atmosphere we hadn’t seen before. But most of the arias don’t get this kind of unique treatment and it tends to run together.

It also helped that Jennifer Holloway, as Fulvia, gave the strongest performance of the whole cast. From her bio it sounds like she’s not sure right now whether she wants to call herself a soprano or a mezzo, and I’d probably find either label credible: she has a bit of mezzo darkness but not as much as most mezzos, and she occasionally got a chance to sing some soprano-like high notes. More importantly, she sings both musically and dramatically and knows how to make a da capo aria into an emotional journey. She was the only cast member who made a complete performance out of the rather meager staging’s material.

The rest of the cast was decent. As Massimo, William Hite sang elegantly and precisely with a Mozartian sort of tenor, but didn’t quite decode this character’s odd mix of paternal protectiveness and reckless vengeance. As Ezio, Brenda Patterson showed a rich, dark mezzo and acted with determination, though perhaps with the scale for a much larger theater. She didn’t always seem comfortable with role’s low tessitura and her ornamentation was sometimes blurred in its coloratura.  As Onoria, soprano Erica Petrocelli (a grad student at NEC) has an intriguing and promising instrument, a distinctive and spicy timbre with a bit of an edge to it. She sang quite musically, but always at an aggressive full tilt, and I would have enjoyed a bit more lyricism. As Valetiniano, countertenor Randall Scotting was emphatic. Tenor Jessie Darden as guard Varo has a pleasant voice, to my ears slightly Rossinian.

So an experience more musically than dramatically satisfying. Maybe Gluck was right about all this reform stuff.

Gluck, Ezio. Odyssey Opera at the Boston University Theatre, 6/3/2016. Full information here.

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2 Comments

  1. Hello, I’ve been reading your blog off and on for a while but never commented before. It’s fun to read a review here of something I actually saw.

    I agree with most of your assessment, although William Hite’s portrayal of Massimo worked well for me. I thought in particular there was a lot of good, nuanced nonverbal interaction between him and Jennifer Holloway’s Fulvia.

    I also liked the set, but then, I really like small-scale modular sets. This one was very minimal but I thought the gradual transition from columns to jumbled blocks did a good job suggested the increasingly distressed state of the characters, or maybe the crumbling of the Roman Empire.

    I went into this one cold, without having heard the music or read the synopsis beforehand. (Not that the Wikipedia synopsis would have helped much, apparently.) It’s the first time I’ve done that with a live opera, and it turned out to be a lot of fun! Now I have some idea what it’s like for the friends I occasionally drag along to these things with me.

  2. I enjoyed Ezio very much indeed. I felt that we were getting pre-ref0rm
    recitatives and A-B-A structure but post reform depth of feeling and musical stature in the arias. It was very nice to hear some “fresh” and different Gluck for a change. I wasn’t mad about the direction and stage set (I say this as one who had a 51 year career designing for theater, opera.exhibits, etc. in Boston) but it was head and shoulders above what we got in the Lucio Silla the next week which was also impressively sung and beautifully played. Boston is incredibly blessed to have Gil Rose headlining the opera and contemporary music scenes here.

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