Odyssey Opera's "Ezio": What Fortunate Disloyalty!

Erica Petrocelli, Brenda Patterson & Jennifer Holloway in "Ezio"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Odyssey Opera of Boston continues with its mission of exposing audiences to rarely heard music, most recently with its production of Ezio, an opera seria composed in 1750 by Gluck (then thirty-six years old). It was about a decade before his famed transformational reforms of opera with his more familiar Orfeo ed Euridice and Iphigenie en Tauride. As the company's Artistic and General Director Gil Rose puts it in his program notes, this is good old-fashioned seria with “power plays, anguish and true love” at its core, demonstrating that Gluck was in fact a “master of the rules before he broke them”. Thus one encounters, as expected, staid conventions such as convenient entrances and exits, static proclamations, lengthy recitatifs and, ultimately, loose ends of plot rather abruptly resolved.

The libretto by Pietro Metastasio conforms to expectations with its stereotypical roles. It takes place in Rome in 453 AD and Roman General Ezio (mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson) has just defeated Attila the Hun. He swears absolute loyalty to the Emperor Valentiniano (countertenor Randall Scotting) until the latter threatens to marry Ezio's beloved Fulvia (soprano Jennifer Holloway). Her father, the patrician Iago-like Massimo (tenor William Hite), plots revenge. Also in the cast are Ezio's prefect and confidant Varo (tenor Jesse Darden) and the emperor's sister Onoria (soprano Erica Petrocelli), who is in love with Ezio. Ezio must choose between loyalty and love. Saving the emperor from Massimo's plotting, he is rewarded by the grateful Valentiniano by being allowed to marry Fulvia (and Massimo is also freed). There are other minor permutations and combinations, subplots and not so hidden agendas, but this is the basic framework that supports some of Gluck's finest and most impressive music. The drama may be relatively static, especially when compared to the composer's later works, but the vocal demands made upon the entire ensemble become powerfully theatrical in themselves.

It was on this level, that of pure professional expertise, that this production excelled. Rose had obviously rehearsed the piece to a literally pitch perfect extent with both his orchestra and the entire cast. With countless examples of musical and vocal artistry over the course of three hours, each of the six principals was given a chance to soar, both individually and collectively, as in the third act trio sung by Holloway, Hite and Scotting. Holloway in particular was a real stand-out in perhaps the meatiest role, and Scotting was visually commanding (surely he never let his gym membership lapse) and audibly amazing (such a sweet high countertenor voice), winning the audience over even as he executed dastardly deeds. There wasn't a false note among the entire group.

On every level, this was a triumphant event, partly due to the Stage Director Joshua Major (who kept things fluid and lucid, despite those obligatory and unavoidably awkward comings and goings). The Costume Design by Rachel Padula Shufelt, Lighting Design by Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew and Scenic Design by Jian Jung (with a subtle evocation of the gradual rise and fall of the empire) all supported the minimalist take on the work, as did the spare surtitles by Dan McGaha, which were occasionally whimsical, as when one character proclaimed, tongue firmly in cheek: “What Fortunate Disloyalty!”

One might easily be forgiven for not engaging in the disdain often heaped upon such opera seria with the inherent artifice, conceits and conventions of the form, when presented with such terrific talent, without surrendering one's strong preferences for opera as it has since evolved.  What fortunate disloyalty indeed.

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