Handel's opera is in three acts, all set in ancient Rome, during the reign of the emperor Valentinian — or, in Italian, Valentiniano. The story centers on a conflict between the emperor and his famous general Aetius, who in the opera becomes Ezio.
Fulvia (soprano Netta Or, right) shares a moment with her lover, the warrior Ezio, in Handel's opera from Schwetzingen.
Yosemeh Adjei ........ Ezio
Netta Or ............... Fulvia
Rosa Bove ........ Valentiniano
Hilke Andersen ...... Onoria
Donat Havar .... Massimo
Marcell Bakonyi .... Varo
Basel Chamber Orchestra
Attilio Cremonesi, conductor
Massimo (Donat Havar, right) threatens the emperor Valentiniano (Rosa Bove) over a long ago insult.
At first, the plot line is reminiscent of a later opera by Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito. In both stories, a Roman emperor is at odds with a close colleague because they both desire the same woman. And in both cases, things turn out alright in the end. But in Mozart's opera, the generous nature of the emperor Tito is evident early on. While in Handel's story, Valentiniano isn't nearly so accommodating, and for a long time things look bleak for Ezio.
As ACT ONE opens, Ezio has made a triumphant return to Rome, after defeating Attila the Hun in battle. Valentiniano welcomes him, and gives him his unconditional support.
Ezio then meets with the patrician Massimo, and Massimo's beautiful daughter, Fulvia. Ezio and Fulvia are in love, and they've been promised to each other in marriage. But Massimo has disturbing news. It seems that the emperor also wants to marry Fulvia.
As it happens, Massimo has a bone to pick with the emperor. It seems that Valentiniano once seduced Massimo's wife. Ever since, Massimo has been looking to get even — and then some. And he thinks maybe Ezio can help. So Massimo suggests that if Ezio really wants Fulvia, he should assassinate the emperor. Ezio is hesitant. The emperor is his supporter, and he trusts the ruler's judgment.
Ezio leaves, and Fulvia immediately gives her father an earful. First, she says, he pledged her to Ezio. Then he urged her to give in to the emperor. Again, Massimo has ulterior motives, telling Fulvia that if she marries Valentiniano she'll have a chance to murder him! She tells her father he should be ashamed of himself.
But Massimo's not giving up so easily. He makes plans for one of his servants, Emilio, to murder the emperor. And he sweetens the plot by making sure that if the attempt fails, Ezio will be the prime suspect.
Meanwhile, Ezio's growing popularity is making Valentiniano nervous. So he tries to remind Ezio of his imperial duty, by offering the general his sister Onoria's hand in marriage. But Ezio says he's in love with Fulvia, and Valentiniano tells him the two are now rivals.
Onoria then fuels the fire by revealing that Valentiniano is set to marry Fulvia the very next day. With that news, Ezio's loyalty to the emperor begins to fail him, and he ends the act with a furious aria.
At the start of ACT TWO, Massimo is waiting for news of his plot against the emperor. Fulvia brings word that the murder attempt failed. The emperor is unhurt, and recognized Emilio as his attacker. But, just as Massimo planned, Valentiniano thinks that Ezio was behind the whole thing. So the emperor turns to Massimo for help — and to Fulvia for love.
Fulvia knows what really happened, and tells Massimo that she'll renounce him unless he gives up his plans. Massimo reminds her that if she reveals the truth, his own life will be threatened.
Ezio then turns up, and he's basically clueless. All he knows is that the emperor was threatened, and he's come to give his support. Fulvia explains the situation, and tells Ezio that he'd best leave town. Ezio says his innocence will win out in the end. But for now, he's led away by the imperial guards, and the emperor's man Varo tells Fulvia that if she wants to play it smart, she'll go along with the wedding to Valentiniano.
The emperor decides that he and his future wife will decide on Ezio's fate. Ezio is brought in, still under guard. And when he sees Fulvia with the Emperor, he concludes that she has betrayed him. Ezio decides that enough is enough, and accuses Valentiniano of stealing his lover. At first, Fulvia continues her ruse, and pretends that she actually loves Valentiniano. But as the act ends, she gives in and tells the truth, saying the only man she truly loves is Ezio.
ACT THREE begins in Ezio's prison cell. Onoria stops by for a visit and tells Ezio that Valentiniano is prepared to let him go — provided that Ezio will confess the details of the assassination plot. Ezio refuses.
Onoria goes back to her brother and urges him to take a more conciliatory approach to Ezio, and the emperor agrees. Ezio is brought before Valentiniano, in chains, and the emperor also sends for Fulvia. Massimo has insisted that Ezio be executed. But Valentiniano is inclined to let Ezio and Fulvia be together, but with the same condition as before: Ezio must tell the truth about the murder conspiracy. Ezio again refuses. And this time, his boldness convinces Valentiniano that Ezio is innocent. Ezio leaves, expressing his gratitude to the emperor.
But Massimo isn't ready to give up. He's still determined to avenge the emperor's long-ago affront to his wife. And before long, Varo rushes in to announce that Ezio has been killed. Onoria quickly follows him, saying the attack was made by Massimo's servant, Emilio. But Emilio was gravely wounded in the process, and as he was dying, he confessed that Ezio was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Finally, it seems that Massimo's scheming has caught up with him. But Fulvia thinks it's her duty to save her father — and says that the whole thing was her idea. Valentiniano has had enough. He's lost his best friend and general, the woman he loves, and now the peace of his empire is threatened.
That's because Ezio's apparent murder plays right into Massimo's hands. Massimo takes to the streets, and urges the people of Rome to avenge the hero's death by deposing their tyrannical emperor. When Valentiniano shows his face, Massimo actually tries to kill him — but Fulvia steps in to prevent it.
Then, as the confusion mounts, Varo shows up — accompanied by Ezio! It turns out Ezio's death was a hoax. Massimo's treachery is finally evident to everyone, including the emperor. But, at Ezio's request, Valentiniano spares Massimo. He also blesses the union of Ezio and Fulvia, and everyone praises the extraordinary strength of the couples' fidelity.