(Opera Settecento at St George’s, Hanover Square, 17 March 2015)
We’re all going to be hearing rather a lot about Catone in Utica this year, so let’s get things off to a roaring start with a performance I saw last night at St George’s, Hanover Square, formerly Handel’s parish church, as part of the London Handel Festival. Although the opera was put together by Handel for his 1732 season, it’s stretching the truth a bit to say that it’s by him. Handel had to fill out his programmes somehow and so, at this stage of his career, he often produced one or two pasticcio operas each season alongside his own works. These pasticci were assembled from arias by several other composers and tailored by Handel to meet the taste of his demanding British public.
I hasten to add that said public were ‘demanding’ in the sense that they were easily bored by recitative and apparently needed a series of big hits to keep their attention. As a result, Catone in Utica is stuffed full of storm arias. Handel’s musical choices are interesting in other ways too: he gives the character of Arbace some surprisingly upbeat arias from other operas, which in turn affects his characterisation (positively, I felt); and he chose to cut Catone’s first aria, Con sì bel nome in fronte. In some versions this can drag on slightly and I wonder if Handel felt it was best to get his audience straight into the midst of the characters’ romantic tribulations. The rather fabulous thing is that Opera Settecento’s production last night was the first time that Handel’s Catone pasticcio had been staged since 1732. I find that rather wonderful.
So. Imagine yourselves in 46 BC (there are spoilers ahead). Roman liberty is on its last legs and all that remains of the Republican resistance has regrouped on the coast of northern Africa, at Utica. Their figurehead is the charismatic but uncompromising senator Cato the Younger. Having watched Caesar’s inexorable approach, the Republican forces march out to meet him under the command of Cato’s colleague Metellus Scipio, at the Battle of Thapsus. It’s a bloodbath. The Republicans are beaten and Caesar, conscious of the threat they pose, has every single man slaughtered. Cato, who wasn’t present, sees his dream of Roman liberty dashed before his eyes. He commits suicide, bloodily and gruesomely, a few weeks later. So far, so Plutarch.
Metastasio’s libretto, unsurprisingly, fleshes out the political machinations with some romantic entanglements. His Catone (Cato) has a daughter, Marzia, whom he plans to marry to the African prince Arbace, as a way of cementing their alliance. Arbace is delighted at the prospect, but Marzia is less enthusiastic. She is in love with Cesare (Caesar), who reciprocates her feelings; and, though Marzia knows her father would be furious if he knew of her affections, she dreams of making peace between the two men she adores. More to the point, she knows she’s the only one who can do so. However, her efforts are doomed. Metastasio’s Cesare is the archetypal noble conquerer. He’s gracious; willing to make concessions. But Catone is obdurate. He will only accept peace if Cesare renounces all his powers and gives himself up to be judged as a tyrant.
Unsurprisingly, Cesare’s generosity only goes so far and their negotiations founder. Catone’s pride proves to be his undoing. As he watches the grim defeat of his army, knowing that nothing now stands between Cesare and absolute power, Catone chooses death above servitude. But he has one final demand of his traumatised daughter: marry Arbace and learn to hate Cesare as he, Catone, has done. Despite everything, Marzia is a devoted daughter and feels she must respect her father, even if it means being forever separated from the man she loves. It’s hardly an upbeat ending. In fact, Vivaldi thought it so depressing that he rewrote the final scene in his version, giving the opera a happy ending in which Catone lives and is reconciled to Cesare, while Marzia and Cesare stare lovingly into one another’s eyes as the curtain comes down. But that doesn’t happen in Vinci and it doesn’t happen here. Oh no. Here, my friends, the angst is out in force.
I hadn’t come across Opera Settecento before, and was delighted by this lively young ensemble who delivered the goods with passion, pizzazz and plenty of panache. From where I was sitting I couldn’t see many of the musicians, but I could see the director Tom Foster at his harpsichord, fizzing with energy and driving the arias along at a robust pace. His company of (mostly) young singers rose to the challenge with aplomb. Christopher Jacklin’s baritone Cesare had many of the really fun arias and he tackled them with glee: after his first piece, Porpora’s Non paventa del mare, I found myself simply scrawling ‘stunning’ in capital letters across the page. But that was cast into the shade by the pure joy of his So che nascondi, set to the music of Vivaldi’s Benchè nasconda from Orlando furioso. I fell in love with this aria on the basis of the introduction alone, played with irresistible verve and bounce by the orchestra. I spotted more than one member of the audience surreptitiously bopping along to the rhythm. I may have been one of them.
Cesare is certainly a challenging role, demanding an agility and a command of coloratura which I am sure would daunt most singers. Every aria is a storm aria, with all that implies; but Jacklin leapt in to tackle each complicated section with ease. He also had an endearing habit of grinning with delight when he knew that something especially mental was coming up. I always love to see people who are evidently enjoying themselves and having fun with this crazy music. Christina Gansch, playing the vengeful Emilia*, had her own fair share of dramatic flair in Act 3, after a string of dutifully grief-stricken arias in the earlier acts. These were movingly sung, but rather overshadowed by the flourishes of her co-stars; and she pulled out all the stops for her late flash of fireworks, with Hasse’s Vede la nocchier la sponda from Euristeo. Effectively another storm aria, this was delivered with furious élan, and Gansch rounded things off with a glare at the audience and a proud toss of the head, which sparked off surprised laughter and applause as she flounced off. I was glad she had the chance to sing something more diverting because she has a gorgeously throaty voice, particularly good at commanding full, swelling high notes, and Emilia’s earlier arias hadn’t really given her full scope to unleash herself.
The role of Catone was meant to be sung by Andrew Watts but, due to his last-minute indisposition, the role was taken over with a mere 48 hours’ notice by Christopher Robson. I am torn in what to say: his generosity in stepping in should, in some ways, preclude any criticism; but at the same time, if I am to review the performance, I have to admit that I was profoundly disappointed. Robson is in his early sixties and it seems that the countertenor voice doesn’t age as well as others: time has certainly taken a harsh toll here. But to say more, under the circumstances, feels desperately unfair. The situation was summed up by a friend’s laconic comment at the first interval: ‘Not quite Senesino.’
For me, the joint stars of the show were Emilie Renard as Arbace, and Erica Eloff as Marzia. Renard in particular was a joy to watch. She achieved the admirable feat of completely reversing my opinion of Arbace as a character. In the versions I’ve heard on CD, I’ve always found Arbace a bit of a wimp: the languishing descendent of Monteverdi’s nice but uninspiring Ottone. Last night, though, he developed personality in spades. Renard played the African prince as an optimistic lover, refusing to let his spirits be dampened by Marzia’s obvious disdain and bouncing back every time with youthful enthusiasm. In a suit and loosened tie, with spiked hair, Renard looked like a grinning, punked-up schoolboy. Her infectious smile won the audience over from the word go, so that I’m sure many of us found ourselves secretly rooting for poor Arbace to get the girl in the end. It helped that she also had a fine, strong mezzo and a deliciously mischievous sense of drama.
In contrast to Arbace’s boyish exuberance, Erica Eloff’s Marzia was dignified and cool to the point of being positively icy. In her arias, though, Eloff managed to express all the despair and confusion of a woman whose heart and duty pull her in two different directions. She has a beautifully light, agile voice which turned out to have quite astonishing power, as I discovered in a rather unexpected way. The website spoke vaguely of arias by Hasse, Porpora, Leo, Vivaldi and Vinci, so I hadn’t known how many to expect by each composer, nor which they’d be. Since Leo, Vivaldi and Vinci had all written settings for Metastasio’s Catone libretto, I assumed the arias would be cherry-picked from among the different versions. I also thought that, since Handel had relied so much on Vinci in his pasticcio of Artaserse (cunningly renamed Arbace), he’d draw heavily on Vinci’s Catone here. Not so. This was predominantly Leo’s evening. Of the sixteen arias, eight were lifted from his Catone; the others were adapted from completely different operas by the other composers. Again Handel proved interesting in his arrangement of the acts. Catone is the title character and, in most versions of the opera, Cesare gets the best arias; but Handel focuses the spotlight firmly on Marzia. She has a showpiece aria at the end of each act, reminding us of her love, her misery and ultimately her despair.
As the opera comes to a close, Marzia is denied the lieto fine granted to most Baroque heroines. Handel couldn’t throw in the traditional final chorus celebrating justice or mercy or love, because it wouldn’t have worked in this context; and so he decided to give Marzia a way to express the tumult of her feelings, while also ensuring that the audience went out into the night with a spring in their step. This takes the form of nothing less than Vinci’s Vo solcando.
You could have knocked me down with a feather. As most of you know, Vo solcando occupies a very special place in my heart. It’s no exaggeration to say that this aria got me hooked on Baroque opera; and I’ve listened to Franco Fagioli sing it more times than I can remember. For me, his version is sheer perfection; and I hope Erica Eloff will forgive me for being so slavishly enamoured of it. However, despite my bias, I was still deeply impressed by Eloff’s phenomenal performance, which left my mouth open and my eyes sparkling. To make the whole thing more deliciously insane, the aria was ramped up to frenetic speed: a little too fast at times, in fact, but it was delivered with drama and daunting sprezzatura, crowned with some dazzling high notes. It was a stupendous way to finish.
All things considered, it was a very enjoyable night. I’m thrilled to have come across Opera Settecento and I’ll be keeping an eye on their future projects; it seems their next opera will be Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria in the autumn, so I suspect I will find my way to that. It was also a great introduction to some very exciting young singers, all of whom I would be absolutely thrilled to hear again. What a superb way to become acquainted with the story! It’s going to be very interesting to compare this version – for which Handel was effectively able to put together a ‘greatest hits’ selection – with Vinci’s, which was the very first setting of the libretto. But we’ll have to wait for May for further information on that score…
In the meantime, for an excellent diagram explaining the plot, head over to Opera innit for Dehggial’s characteristically quirky but very knowledgeable take on things.
* An interval discussion brought up the problem that Pompey’s wife is sometimes called Cornelia (Giulio Cesare) and sometimes Emilia (Catone). Why is this? Answers on a postcard, please.