Catone in Utica: Leonardo Vinci (1728)

Piranesi: The Via Appia

★★★★½

(Il Pomo d’Oro, directed by Riccardo Minasi)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the CD is here. I meant to wait until Versailles before posting about Catone, but I’ve changed my mind and will write separately about the recording and the performance. There are two main reasons for that. First, Valer Sabadus announced last week that he won’t be singing either at the Opera Royal or Wiesbaden: illness prevents his rehearsing. Of course I’ll miss him, but his replacement is Ray Chenez, who sounds rather exciting on the basis of YouTube clips. I’m always happy to discover a new voice.

As Marzia is essentially the main character, the two singers might bring slightly different nuances to the part, and I feel it’s fairer on both Sabadus and Chenez to consider them individually. Furthermore, my post about the Versailles performance (for which, see here) will likely be dominated by the sets, costumes and vast numbers of chandeliers. I’d like to have the chance to think about the opera first, without visual elements which may or may not add to its lustre.*

It’s hard not to see Catone as an informal sequel to Artaserse. Again there’s a historically-authentic all-male cast, and five of the six roles in Catone are taken by Artaserse alumni. Max Cencic is again at the helm of the production, this time singing the secondo uomo role of Arbace, the long-suffering prince of Numidia. Sabadus, as I’ve said, plays the prima donna Marzia, whom Arbace wants for his wife; Juan Sancho is Catone; Franco Fagioli is the conquering primo uomo Cesare; and Vince Yi plays the seconda donna, Pompey’s widow Emilia. They are joined by the tenor Martin Mitterrutzner as Fulvio, and this time the orchestra is the vivacious Pomo d’Oro under the leadership of Riccardo Minasi. It is, quite simply, a match made in heaven.

You’ll remember that Il Pomo d’Oro impressed me at the Wigmore in December, and they thoroughly live up to expectations here. Indeed, if you still have preconceptions about Baroque operas being mannered affairs full of prim harpsichords, Catone puts paid to that in the first two seconds of its opening sinfonia. We’re whisked immediately into a tempest of horns and drums, giving way to a beautiful central section and concluding with a joyfully foot-tapping whirl. The brass plays a central role throughout the opera, giving a martial shimmer to grand arias such as Catone’s opening Con sì bel nome in fronte or Cesare’s blisteringly exuberant Se in campo armato. The music is consistently pacy, vibrant and and infused with a keen dramatic sensitivity. It reminds you what this opera must have felt like to its first audiences: thrilling, swaggering, cool and full of youthful vigour.

You can find a summary of the plot here: Catone has a libretto by the trusty Metastasio, but although it does have the conventional two pairs of lovers, the tyrant or patriarch played by a tenor, and the sidekick, there’s a lot that deviates from the norm. It was a risk that didn’t fully pay off. The first audiences were baffled and a grumpy Metastasio was forced to rewrite it and give it a happy ending: but the very elements that failed to satisfy Baroque audiences strike more of a chord with a darker modern sensibility. The opera throbs with pain and frustrated passion, showing us the gulf between the fantasy world where everything can be resolved with a lieto fine, and the harsh reality where love is torn apart by political expediency, vendettas consume the soul and dreams simply don’t come true.

By the standards of its time the libretto is magnificently bleak, presenting us with a complex and conflicted set of characters among whom there is no villain and no true hero. There are no scheming dukes or viziers here, and no wholly virtuous princes. Everyone is out for what they can get; but everyone also has their own suffering and their own form of virtue. Our title character is supposed to be a Republican hero, but his pride is so unyielding that a peaceful resolution is doomed from the start. This is opera as Greek tragedy: the story of one man’s overwhelming hubris and the clash of two egos so immense that there is no place for them to coexist in one world.

Marzia’s first aria is the manipulative Non ti minaccio sdegno, which Sabadus delivers at a slower pace than I’m used to. However, this measured speed works well for me, because Marzia sounds as if she’s thinking as she sings, slowly formulating the best way to deal with Arbace. ‘Do as I say,’ she tells him, ‘and we’ll see if you’re worthy of a reward. But I’m not promising anything.’ Sabadus’ lyrical elegance comes into full play in In che t’offende, an interestingly psychological aria in which the lyrics are all about hope and optimism, but the melody already bears the weight of tragic inevitability. And of course, that comes to pass by the end, and Marzia’s final aria is the fragmented Confusa, smarrita, a tumble of half-started sentences and caught breaths, in which she struggles to phrase her conflicted emotions into a coherent farewell to her lover. But she fails: Metastasio’s lyrics, usually so carefully polished, shatter under the weight of human despair: ‘If ever you think of me as you fight… I hope… You know… What sorrow!’

By turns fragile, calculating and defiant, Marzia provides the emotional heart of the story. Valer Sabadus deftly makes the switch from Persian brat-prince to Roman maiden, his maturing voice given the perfect setting on the recording. (One of the pleasures of the CD is that everyone sounds even richer and stronger than they did in Artaserse.) Despite being the putative heroine and peacemaker, Marzia can also be strikingly cruel, and her unwelcome lover Arbace bears the brunt of her disdain. (Note that the role of Marzia was written for Giacinto Fontana, who also created the role of Mandane in Artaserse. If his characters bear any stamp of his own temper, he must have been quite a handful.) For example, when Catone first suggests the marriage, Marzia bristles in scorn: she is Roman, born in the shadow of the Capitol! Would he have her lower herself to marry a king?!

This sense of Republican superiority complicates Marzia’s love for Cesare (an affection which explains why Arbace simply isn’t having any luck with her). When the two meet for the first time in the opera, Cesare greets her adoringly but Marzia, conscious of his legions at the gates, is initially cold. ‘Who are you? I knew a Cesare once, but he was a better man than you.’ (In an ironic twist, Cato’s real-life daughter Portia was the wife of Brutus; no great fondness for Caesar there, I feel.)

If there’s one person who gets to have a bit of fun in this opera, it’s Marzia’s beloved Cesare, a part originally written (like Artaserse‘s Arbace) for Carestini, and played here with predictable verve and brilliance by Fagioli. Soffre talor del vento is a swaggering, playful storm-aria in which, for once, the singer isn’t comparing himself to the boat tossed upon the waves, but the rising fury of the wind itself. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is Fagioli’s flashiest moment, but actually that’s not true: Act 2 has one further treat in store. That is the frankly mental Se in campo armato, in which Fagioli swings into battle with bristling strings and trumpets, and manages to fit in a mind-boggling number of notes even by his standards. Either one of those arias could turn out to be the new Vo solcando: it depends on how Fagioli decides to play it in performance, but if I don’t get some crazy cadenzas and at least a couple of those fabled top notes, I shall sulk.

But Cesare isn’t just about flash and swagger. He’s also the romantic lead and, though my head is easily turned by coloratura bling, his two most beautiful pieces are romantic arias. Ch’ un dolce amor condanna is a rapturous declaration of love, whose melody is faintly echoed in the later Quell’ amor che poco accende, an exquisite, achingly refined meditation on loss and heartbreak, which could well be the most beautiful piece of music in the entire opera. Cesare has all the lineaments of a hero, but even he has his dark side. He’s willing to make any concession to Catone except the abnegation of his dictatorial power: he offers magnanimity in the knowledge that he won’t lose anything. Having come, seen and conquered half the known world, this Cesare is already showing the arrogance that will lead (as Catone predicts) to the Senate house and the knife in the back.

If Cesare is the unstoppable force, then Catone is the unmovable object. We meet him in the opening scene in Utica’s armoury, grieving at the thought of imminent war: a man of profound conviction and high ideals. For him, Rome is everything: to be Roman in itself makes a man noble, as he explains to Arbace in the stately Con sì bel nome in fronte. However, this virtuous friend of liberty is hard to warm to: he is also uncompromising and devoid of human tenderness. Juan Sancho brings all the gentleness of his rich tenor to the opening recitatives, as Catone contemplates the fate of Rome; but when his own daughter has the courage to admit her love for Cesare, he explodes into the furious Dovea svenarti allora, helped along by frantic, swirling strings. Sancho has an extremely expressive voice and he does a magnificent job of showing Catone’s ruthlessness: if Marzia dares to love the man he hates, then she is no daughter of his – a vicious resolution which eventually breaks even Marzia’s strong spirit.

And Catone’s chosen match for his daughter is no less complex. In a normal Baroque opera, Arbace would be the slightly oily unwelcome lover who pesters the heroine, but here he is strikingly sympathetic. He’s a distinguished warrior, loyal and virtuous, and genuinely enamoured of Marzia to the point that he lets her treat him very poorly. That’s his key flaw, if we choose to read it as weakness of spirit, but it might also be seen as constancy: misguided, perhaps, but still laudable. And Arbace’s finest moment comes towards the end when, as the battle rages, he encounters Cesare in the dark of the aqueduct. The two men have never met before, but they know of one another: rivals in love as well as war. And then, realising that Cesare is in danger, Arbace offers to accompany him, to fight a path clear for Cesare to return to his camp. It’s a startlingly noble offer. Cesare, for his part, is scarcely less noble: he declines Arbace’s offer and asks the prince instead to go after Marzia, to protect her. It’s a moment when these two enemies look one another in the eye and find something to admire in the other: so much to admire, in fact, that Cesare is willing to entrust the safety of the woman he adores to this man.

It’s interesting to have a character like this, whom the heroine loathes, but whom we as the audience know might not turn out to be such a bad match after all. And Max Cencic, of course, sings the role wonderfully, with a masculine edge to his voice that prevents him from sounding too much like Artaserse‘s Mandane. After a series of rather gentle arias performed with immaculate poise, including the self-pitying Che legge spietata, Arbace finally gets his bravura moment in Combattuta da tante vicende, in which you can almost feel Cencic’s relish at having a moment to delve into flamboyance.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d once again urge people to stop falling back on outdated assumptions about the countertenor voice and actually start listening. This, like any other Baroque opera, has its tenors, its mezzos and its sopranos; and it’s so exciting because it picks up where Artaserse left off and shows us how this team of singers is just getting better and better with age. And let’s be frank: it’s also thrilling because the music is so damn good. The more I hear of Vinci the more I love him: he has a simplicity and an accessibility that I don’t find in the more highly ornamented Hasse. Maybe it’s just because the recordings of his operas are so modern, performed by such lively orchestras who are breaking away from the staid older traditions of Baroque performance. It’s true that Catone might not, as an opera, be quite up there with Artaserse in musical terms, and its brave, unusual ending does mean that its final scene tails off slightly; but it’s still a gripping piece of work both musically and lyrically. Moreover, its characterisation has a psychological depth and power that I’ve rarely found in Baroque operas. It is to be highly recommended.

Emilia is perhaps the character who comes closest to conventional villainy, but even her machinations are based on an understandable desire for vengeance. She has seen her beloved husband horribly murdered in front of her very eyes, through what she believes to be Cesare’s treachery. Her heart is still Pompey’s, and she begs his soul’s forgiveness even as she encourages the attentions of the Roman legate Fulvio, through whom she thinks she can strike at Cesare more easily. She’s not a soft woman, but her determination is plausible. Somehow I feel that she ‘should’ be a contralto, but the casting of Vince Yi works very well: his extraordinary voice, with its soaring bell-like purity, gives Emilia a graceful femininity despite the force of her resolution. Yi also conquers some technically challenging moments, such as the beautiful but unevenly-paced aria Per te spero, whose zig-zagging scales betray the two-faced nature of the love Emilia professes for the legate.

Fulvio himself is no better, perhaps: he does love Emilia, but he is double-crossing her as surely as she is him, hoping to frustrate her plot to ambush Cesare and save his friend. I haven’t heard Martin Mitterutzner before, but his voice is just stunning (and somehow not what I’d expected based on his photos). His deep tenor has real power and resonance, and in Nascesti alle pene he throws in a sudden high note: you itch to hear what he sounds like when fully unleashed. He’s quite a find: I can’t wait to hear him live.

A small note on the CD design: this time the cover-boy is not the title character (in contravention of usual practice) but Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose intricate, fantastical etchings echo Catone’s towering pride. The image chosen for the CD is a pasticcio of ancient architecture, jumbled together in a splendid dream of Rome that could never have been built by men (just as impossible, perhaps, as Catone’s Republican utopia?). However, Piranesi is equally famous for his Carceri or Prisons, whose labyrinthine arches and stairways draw the eye into their threatening, subterranean depths: not a bad mental setting for the opera’s final act in the shadows of the underground aqueduct. It’s an astute visual theme: I’ve heard it will continue in the set itself, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that works out.

The libretto, incidentally, is the thickest booklet I’ve ever seen. I think it’s just really expensive glossy paper, because it genuinely is mostly libretto: the essays aren’t long and there aren’t even photos of all the cast, which is a bit of a shame (Cencic, Fagioli and Sancho get photos but the rest of the boys remain enigmatically faceless, which I’ve done my best to rectify here).

Roll on Versailles!

Buy the CD

Catone in Utica

Marzia swearing to obey Catone: an illustration to Catone in Utica from a late 18th-century edition of Metastasio’s collected works

* They didn’t.

** For some snippets from the ever-admirable J.C. Bach’s version of Catone, see this impressive student production from Leipzig in 2011 (another part here, with a high note in Confusa, smarrita that I think might challenge even Sabadus).

10 thoughts on “Catone in Utica: Leonardo Vinci (1728)

  1. dehggial says:

    The people demand crazy cadenzas! 😀 I think it's only fair that singers indulging in Baroque operas abide by that law. Do you know there's a bunch of sopranos singing Se in campo armato on youtube? For once that's not what I'm looking for.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    The people do indeed demand crazy cadenzas… As for Se in campo armato, I obviously totally missed that because I hadn't heard the Vinci version before listening to the CD. I've got several versions of the Vivaldi setting and, to be honest, that doesn't sound all that different… to the point where you wonder whether Vivaldi might have drawn liberal inspiration from Vinci. It's a very fun aria; though on further listening I think Soffre talor del vento might just be creeping ahead as my preferred one. 🙂

  3. chrisdokter says:

    The accompanying booklet is quite thick, yes. You are right that it is unusual not to add photos of all the members of the cast. I don't recall ever having seen such a thing before. Even stranger is the fact that, unless I am mistaken, 'yours' features three of the singers (Cencic, Fagioli and Sancho), wheras 'mine' only contains one: Cencic. So either the morphine is still playing tricks on my senses, or there seems to be a difference between booklets of the self same CD box. Which would make even lesser sense. Another enigma?

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Cencic is at the beginning but Fagioli and Sancho are hidden away a bit on pages 114 and 115, so perhaps you skipped over them accidentally? By the way, I've been hearing all about your experiences of the staged version at Wiesbaden. I am very much less than convinced by what I've heard – and very glad I decided to review the CD (music) and performance (staging) separately. Good heavens.

  5. chrisdokter says:

    You are right. I found the two others now, too, 'stowed away' on the very pages you mention. As far as the staging of the opera in Wiesbaden, I just did not see a convincing and coherent idea behind it, but then again, maybe it was just me and Jutaa being overly harsh. The German press was all praise. My wife liked it fine: she only missed the lavish Baroque costumes Artaserse had… I am keen to see what you yourself make of it!

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