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Arias Aplenty: Handel's 'Ezio'

Ralph Waldo Emerson is often credited as saying, "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But that's not quite correct. He actually said, "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." And that one extra word, "foolish," can make a big difference.

In some cases, surely, consistency can be seen — and heard — as a shortcoming. Opera composers surely wouldn't want all their works to sound the same; they'd aim for variety. Or would they?

Consider the works of Philip Glass. The composer's repetitive, minimalist style is nothing if not consistent — from one minute to the next, and sometimes, it seems, from one hour to the next. But whatever you might think of minimalism, that brand of consistency didn't turn out to be foolish — at least not in Glass's case. He wrote some of the most popular of all modern operas.

And about 275 years ago, there was another operatic style that thrived on consistency. The genre called opera seria was nothing if not predictable. It featured dry recitatives alternating with florid arias and occasional ensembles. The recitatives conveyed the story, and the other numbers showed off the singers — and that was about all the variety the style could deliver.

But, as with minimalism, the repetition and consistency of opera seria was anything but foolish — at least in the hands of the right composer. Working in the opera houses of 18th-century London, George Frideric Handel exploited the genre to become one of the most successful composers in Europe. And with his 1732 opera Ezio, Handel proved that even the most predictable string of numbers could become an explosion of musical variety.

In Ezio, Handel took the formal strictures of opera seria to their extreme. He eliminated everything but recitatives and arias. There were no duets and no trios, and just one, brief chorus to finish things off with a bang. In other words, the opera is nothing but recitatives and solo arias. But, oh, those arias. Over the course of three acts, Handel pumped out a dazzling collection of them — arias ranging from simple and melancholy, to sly and reflective, to dazzling and triumphant. And they're accompanied by some of the most original orchestrations he ever created.

On World of Opera for this week, guest host Korva Coleman presents Handel's Ezio in a production from one of Europe's foremost music festivals — the 2009 Schwetzingen Festival in Germany. The performance features countertenor Yosemeh Adjei in the tile role, along with soprano Netta Or and the Basel Chamber Orchestra, all led by conductor Attilio Cremonesi.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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