Alan Curtis continues his exemplary series of Handel operas for Archiv with Ezio, a 1732 work that has received few modern productions. Its initial limited success and failure to generate much interest until the late twentieth century may have to do with its length (over three hours), its preponderance of recitatives, and the composer's reluctance to use the voices together in ensembles, so that the entire opera, until the final chorus, consists of solo singing. Handel's gift for astute psychological insight and distinctive musical characterization is evident throughout the score, and the recitatives, which are necessary for explicating Metastasio's convoluted plot, are not a problem when they are performed with as much vivid dramatic realism as they are here.
Curtis' decision to use a woman rather than a countertenor in the title role originally written for the castrato Senesino is risky because having women, three of them altos, in all but two of the roles creates the possibility of lack of vocal variety. The singers he has chosen, though, have such distinctive voices that it's easy to tell which character is singing even without following the libretto. Sonia Prina as the emperor Valentiniano has a deep resonance that makes her immediately recognizable. Ann Hallenberg, in the castrato role of Ezio, projects a masculine personality that sets her apart from Marianne Andersen, as Onorio, Valentiniano's sister. Karina Gauvin as Fulvia stands apart as the sole soprano and sings with limpid tenderness and expressiveness. All four women perform with exceptionally clear and focused tone and have the coloratura agility to handle Handel's virtuosic requirements with apparently effortless flair. Bass Vito Priante is also outstanding in the small but demanding role of Varo. Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani is entirely adequate as Massimo, but in such stellar company, his tenor sounds small and conventional in comparison. Curtis' leadership of Il Complesso Barocco is fleet, supple, and colorful. Archiv's sound is clean and detailed, with an excellent sense of immediacy. Ezio may not be at the pinnacle of Handel's operatic output, but especially in a performance this fine, it should be of strong interest to enthusiasts of Baroque opera.