Martern aller Arten
03/15/2005 - and 17, 19, 21 March 2005
George Frideric Handel: Ezio
Tim Mead (Ezio), Elizabeth Watts (Fulvia), Philip Viveash (Valentiniano), Anna Grevelius (Onoria), Eamonn Mulhall (Massimo), George Matheakakis (Varo)
Laurence Cummings (conductor), William Relton (director)
The London Handel Festival has a tradition of staging comparatively rare Handel operas with advanced students and young singers in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music. Their Radamisto preceded Opera North's, and last year's Sosarme just beat Nicholas McGegan's with the Baroque Philharmonia out of the gate. The productions are usually typical of London college showcases, which is to say, pretty good if economical, and there have been few that have not made a case for the operas. This year's Ezio is no exception: it is clearly comparable in performability to Radamisto, Rodelinda and the other Royal Academy opere serie, and this performance had many attractions.
It is fairly easy to see why Ezio hasn't yet had an opera-house staging this century, though. The libretto, originally by Metastasio, is heavy on the conflicts of love, ambition and duty, expressed in extensive recitative, and on metaphor arias. The main plot involves the triumphant general Ezio who is in love with Fulvia, the daughter of the aristocrat Massimo, as is the emperor Valentiniano, who is also insanely jealous of Ezio's military success. Massimo is a scheming villain, Ezio is nobly trustful of the emperor, and Fulvia heroically resists all temptations and threats, until she finally tries to sacrifice herself to save her father when his incredible duplicity is exposed. The emperor's sister is also in love with Ezio. The prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Varo, a character apparently assembled from separate sage adviser, comic messenger-servant and stalwart solder with seams to rival those of Frankenstein's monster, has a cunning plan borrowed from Radamisto that eventually forces Valentiniano to clemency and there is a lieto fine that is unlikely to last more that two minutes.
Handel trims the original, but his opera is still far more unwieldy than Mozart's version of the comparable La Clemenza di Tito, and rigidly organized around exit arias that stop the action. But these days there are ways of dealing with this sort of libretto, if not of solving its problems. William Relton's production, done in Italian with supertitles, borrows both an overall approach and many details from a group of productions of the past twenty years that try to follow Nicholas Hynter's ENO Xerxes. The slightly deranged emperor Valentiano is depicted as George I, and the other characters costumed correspondingly, although the treatment is satirical rather than comic, an approach that works reasonably well, as it did in Conway's Flavio for Opera Theatre Dublin ten years ago. The arias are usually accompanied by action, including a tea service recycled from the Glyndebourne Rodelinda, and, a new spin, a couple of cases where the content of a metaphor (shepherds, the roll of the dice) is acted out by supers. This last trick, here done inoffensively enough, seems reasonable in the abstract, but it seriously breaks the dramatic frame and treats the arias as something impersonally decorative rather than an expression of the character's frame of mind. There may be a device to replace the singer's direct communication with the audience of an aria's content, which is difficult to do when most of the audience doesn't start to know how to listen to arias, but this isn't it.
There may have been some prancing sailors in Fulvia's aria "Finchè un zeffiro soave", which expresses her hope that the storm is over because Ezio has declared, at the risk of his life, that her loves her, but nobody noticed because Elizabeth Watts' performance of the aria was so superb. She demonstrated exactly how a singer can perform the most artificial aria and keep the audience hanging on every note. In a performance that was outstanding, not only in a generally pretty good cast, but by almost any standard, Watts was if anything even better in the penultimate aria of the second act, "La mia constanza", a precursor of "Martern aller Arten" with fewer high notes, again needing absolutely no extraneous help to convey her meaning. Anna Grevelius as Onoria had a fine, rich mezzo and was a plausible but dignified lady of a certain age.
Tim Mead had a fairly thankless task as Ezio, who is a major prig, and he didn't avoid sanctimoniousness but didn't have much chance to. His voice is good, without hoot or squawk, not particularly loud but getting on for heroic in its focus and flexibility. Philip Viveash was impressively unpleasant as Valentiniano, the lecherous, paranoid emperor, reminiscent of Nero in I, Claudius, on the edge of comedy and disgustingness. His singing had some thin patches, but his performance more than made up for it. Eamonn Mulhall's Massimo was characterized as a Machiavellian Puritan, apparently terribly loyal, and he didn't do quite enough to suggest the twisted ambition and lust for revenge (the emperor has raped his wife) behind the complaisant mask. George Matheakakis was solid as the functional Varo.