(Opéra Royal, Versailles, 19 June 2015)
Versailles. The very name conjures up opulence and the Opéra Royal, nestled within the palace, is no exception. It’s a jewel-box of gold and crystal, festooned with chandeliers. Simply walking into our loge took my breath away, and I was glad of it. I’d waited for this night for nine months, having impulsively booked tickets three days after I first watched Artaserse. It was an expensive leap of faith. Now, tucked into the velvet-lined corner of our box with a superb view of the stage and orchestra pit (conveniently close to those fabulous horns), I was about to find out if the wait had been worthwhile.
If some of you have a sense of deja-vu, that’s understandable. I recently wrote about the Catone in Utica recording, and this post is more about the production itself: the dramatic performances, the design and the choreography. But I must begin with a nod to the orchestra, the ever-admirable Pomo d’Oro. Under the leadership of Riccardo Minasi they moved smoothly from thrilling martial grandeur, required by arias such as Se in campo armato, to the hauntingly exquisite line of strings flowing throughout Quell’ amor che poco accende. There was one point (at the beginning of Soffre talor del vento, I think) when one of the horns got slightly over-excited, but maybe it just sounded unusual because we were so close to him. Given our position, my great fear was that the trumpets would overpower the singing; but that didn’t happen much.
I also want to give some space to the one cast member who didn’t appear on the CD: Ray Chenez, stepping into the role of Marzia. I’d never heard him sing before and was very pleasantly surprised by his warm, clear voice with its velvety nap of vibrato. As he’s so young his voice must still be developing but it’s already one of the more powerful countertenors on the stage and his diction in particular was notably clear. He seemed a bit shy of having a go at the really soaring high notes in his cadenzas, but I hope that he’ll get a bit more confident in the future because he’s definitely got the oomph to pull them off. He also added some very pretty ornamentation in his da capo sections which differed from that used on the CD.
And if he impressed vocally he was also very convincing physically. His Marzia was deliciously arch and flirtatious: a woman entirely conscious of her own desirability and ready to exploit it to get her own way. She is a far more cynical heroine than either of the ladies in Artaserse, who were respectively too high-minded and too naive to behave in such a fashion. In Non ti minaccio sdegno, Marzia tantalises her long-suffering suitor Arbace without ever quite making good on her promises: the perfect dramatic interpretation of the aria. I had issues with Arbace’s parrot-headed attendant, whom I’ll discuss in a moment, but I was amused by his role in this aria. Importuned by this unwelcome creature, Marzia smiles sweetly, but then simply twitches up her skirts and steps over him, displaying a telling flash of sensual crimson petticoats under the sober Republican black of her gown as she goes. And she isn’t above dealing him a quick kick as she leaves either.
In a moment I’m going to focus on some of the individual arias, when I shall become exuberant and verbose as per usual. If you wish, you can skip the criticism and go straight to the burbling. But, if you have time to spare, and a cup of tea close to hand, let’s take a deep breath and deal with the elephant in the corner of the room. The staged production of Catone in Utica is far from flawless. It introduces too much pointless flummery which weakens the power of the story itself. My contention is not that we couldn’t understand what the production is trying to do – my parents and I found ways to rationalise virtually everything – but that I think it’s unnecessary.
Forgive me for drawing a direct comparison with Artaserse but it’s hard to avoid. What’s noticeable in that opera is that there are no distractions: your attention is focused entirely on the singing. The drama comes from the characters’ own engagement with their situation and from the reactions of those around them. In Catone, by contrast, one feels that the director doesn’t trust the singers to hold the audience’s attention. Alternatively, maybe he thinks the audience will get bored unless we have quirky diversions to pander to our three-second attention spans. And so we have dancers wearing ships on their heads; a parrot-headed man; walking tents; fossilised creatures; and, most baffling of all, a skeletal fish which glides out inexplicably across the African skies as Arbace sings Che sia la gelosia at the end of Act 2.
But one can find significance in anything if one tries hard enough. For example, we have those prowling fossils on the backdrop. For me, this imagery is linked to the Piranesi prints which form an artistic leitmotif. These etchings, showing the Colosseum or the Temple of Minerva Medica, show us the Rome which Catone cherishes in his heart; but what he can’t see is that his beloved liberty has already crumbled into ruin. He’s identifying with something which has no place in the modern world and which doesn’t even exist any more. The monumental fossilised remains – be they dinosaurs, giant birds or sabre-tooth tigers – are another visual allusion to the extinction of Republican Rome. And that decay takes further form in the skeletal bird which stalks Catone during his arias. I saw this as the eagle, the great symbol of Roman power and authority, here stripped of its flesh by Cesare’s rapacious hunger for control.
And, since we’re talking about birds, let’s address the parrot issue. I mentioned that Arbace is often accompanied by a man wearing a rubber parrot’s head. My mother suggested that this figure could be a manifestation of Arbace’s inner self, like the daemons which appear in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And so, during Non ti minaccio sdegno, this creature trails hopelessly after Marzia; and, in Che sia la gelosia, while Arbace laments Marzia’s confession of love for Cesare, the parrot appears behind a screen mournfully cradling her discarded wedding veil. It therefore becomes a totemic figure through which Arbace expresses his true sense of loss and despair (it also gives him someone to sing to, as he’s often alone on stage in his arias). I think this an intelligent reading, but I maintain that it didn’t have to be there at all. More expressive acting would have been an equally powerful and less distracting solution.
For me, the presence of all these weird elements implies a lack of sensitivity to the intentions of both librettist and composer. Catone in Utica is the great Baroque tragic opera, especially in this Vinci setting. Its hard-hitting story is at its best when focused on the two central egos struggling for dominance. It could be performed spotlit on an empty stage and, with good performances like those we saw, it would still command rapt attention. But unfortunately the director doesn’t have faith in the power of his story; and ultimately it’s the singers who suffer from the excess of ‘concept’.
Some fared better than others, of course. With Franco Fagioli in full swing, you could have a battle reenactment in the background and you probably still wouldn’t be able to take your eyes off him; but Martin Mitterrutzner, despite his beautifully rich, strong and resonant voice, drew the short straw. Not only was Fulvio’s gorgeous Act 1 aria Piangendo ancora cut, but his two remaining arias both had to be performed in the face of visual distractions. Nascesti alle pene began with him grappling on the floor with a half-willing Emilia, and concluded as he was being comprehensively pleasured behind a miniature model of the Colosseum (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). And in Act 3 his bravura aria, La fronda, che circonda, was overshadowed by the capering of dancers wearing rats’ heads, like escapees from a pantomime of Dick Whittington and his Cat. Yes, I understand that they’re meant to represent Emilia’s men: the ‘rats’ who have turned on Cesare. But quite frankly I’d rather have just concentrated on Mitterrutzner’s lovely voice.
The singing was generally very good, as you’d expect from such a cast, but in some cases I’ve heard them on better form. It was announced before curtain-up that Cencic was ill (cue howls of protest from the audience) ‘but! but!’ persisted the manager, waggling a remonstrating finger, he wished to sing anyway and begged our indulgence. He certainly sounded more subdued than he did in Alessandro, with a roughened underlying texture to his voice, but this was mainly noticeable in the recitatives. In his arias his voice had the chance to warm up and was often close to his usual velvety beauty by the da capo sections, even if his projection was a little muted. The overall impression was simply of quietness and caution, but how far that’s due to him being unwell and how far due to Arbace as a character, I’m not sure.
As I noted of the CD, Arbace only has one aria where he gets to stretch his bravura legs. Combattuta da tante vicende in Act 3 was an amusing moment because he sings it in the presence of Cesare, who is both his romantic rival in the opera, and his vocal rival on the stage. Cencic performed with the same kind of restraint as he showed at the Wigmore in December, but the scene was enlivened by Fagioli as Cesare, who lurked behind him looking (playfully) rather impatient that someone else had the limelight, and trying to shoo him off in pursuit of Marzia whenever he paused for breath. I would have liked to see how Arbace might have been served by a livelier approach, closer to the energy with which Cencic invested his Alessandro and his Mandane, although I fully understand that as a character he is meant to be overshadowed by Cesare’s glamour.
I should add that Cencic’s costume was the one that I really couldn’t warm to: the cheap-looking tailored shirt / sheath dress combo wasn’t helped by the spray of rainbow feathers over his shoulder, which looked exactly like one of the feather dusters you find in English pound-shops. This was unfortunate. However, let’s turn our attention back to the thing that really matters: he was not well, but he appeared anyway – perhaps because this performance was being filmed for broadcast – and we were grateful for it. He had a very warm reception from the audience in consequence.
The three other roles were more or less as they sounded on the CD, although I was struck by the fact that Juan Sancho’s voice didn’t carry as well as I’d expected in such a space. For a moment I did wonder if he was unwell too, because he was the one who occasionally was swamped by the orchestra, although he came to life in his rage arias. The character also felt slightly stiff, but I suspect that was intentional and that, like Cencic’s Arbace, Sancho had chosen to make Catone a very reserved foil to the exuberance of the other characters on stage. It was a pleasure to hear two different but complementary types of tenor in the show, alongside the array of countertenors, and as mentioned above I thought Martin Mitterrutzner’s Fulvio came across very well. I wish his aria hadn’t been cut – the opera ran for four and a half hours as it was, and at that length it surely doesn’t matter if you have an extra five minutes or so. I really enjoyed both his voice and his character: Fulvio is meant to be an independent observer in these peace talks, but it’s telling that my parents came out of the opera assuming he was Cesare’s ‘PA’.
As for Vince Yi, he started a little quietly but really made an impact once he got into his arias, with some stunning high notes that rang out through the opera house. Un certo non so che was particularly impressive, with an immensely powerful final cadenza; and he did a very good job with Per te spero, which is one of my favourite arias in the opera. Yes, his voice is an acquired taste; and personally I wasn’t convinced by his mimesis of femininity, but this is a subjective issue, because my parents thought him very strong. (I never imagined getting into such heated debates with my parents about whether Man A or Man B made the better woman. That’s Baroque for you.) I don’t know what niggled with me about Yi, but I think it stemmed from the troubling absence of a wig. I found it hard to see ‘Emilia’ rather than ‘Vince Yi in a dress’. But as an actor he did a very good job with a tricky role: I thought that he made Emilia sympathetic as well as being ruthless; not an easy feat.
Now to the fun stuff. Despite having grumbled about some aspects of the staging, there were many parts which I enjoyed immensely and which offered striking, different perspectives on the characters from those I’d gleaned from the CD. The cast must be commended for performing with such gusto, throwing themselves into their roles wherever possible; and this was especially true of our leading man. ‘Dunque! Cesare venga,’ announces Catone in Act 1; and so, with the entire audience primed, our primo uomo strides onto the stage. This entrance alone banished all my earlier qualms about Franco Fagioli’s extravagant costume. I suddenly realised that, in these golden spangles and crimson hose and shoes, he isn’t meant to be playing Julius Caesar at all. He’s playing Caesar seen through a Baroque lens, and so he doesn’t merely walk onto the stage like anyone else, but arrives. With chin up, hands disposed in perfect Baroque gestures, and each foot in its high-heeled shoe elegantly posed, the implication is clear: ‘Yes! I am here! Now you may begin!’*
The best thing about the evening was seeing the opera in such a flamboyant house, with an audience who had come from all over Europe, many of them especially to see Fagioli and Cencic. With Fagioli on undeniable form, this might be the closest I’ll get to imagining what it might have been like to see Caffarelli or Senesino live. And I don’t just mean his voice. I mean the whole atmosphere: that crackle of electricity when he makes his entrance; the relish everyone takes in the extravagant gestures; the way the audience sits upright when The Big Aria is about to start; seven hundred people all holding their breath as he embarks on an unaccompanied cadenza; the eruption of roars and cheers at the end. It is an experience in itself.
From the CD I’d judged Cesare to be a primarily romantic figure – with flashes of bravado, granted, but nevertheless someone who was sincerely keen to find a way to make peace with Catone and win Marzia. I entirely revised my opinion after watching the staged version. Fagioli sings in the same way, but when you see him acting, you understand that this Cesare is charming, duplicitous and untrustworthy: a consummate manipulator who is willing to give up everything for power. And I liked his style.
Before turning his attention to Marzia, he focuses squarely on Emilia in Nell’ ardire che il seno accende. She has declared herself his enemy, but in a flattering aria he coaxes her to take his hand and join him in a formal dance. Presently he adds two other dancers: Fulvio, the Senate’s emissary; and a dancer wearing a ship on his head. The latter came on stage as Emilia sang about her husband Pompey’s murder on the Nile, and probably therefore represents the forces of Egypt. Lining these three up, Cesare brings them under his spell, getting them dancing literally to his tune, until he judges that they are sufficiently under his thumb. Then he quietly breaks out of the line, leaving them dancing on – still to his tune but now by his command rather than by his lead. This staging made me smile because it made me think of Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle from Chicago. Dazzle your enemies with sincerity, get them dancing to your tune, and then you have them in your hand. Well, Cesare might not have Emilia quite as much under control as he desires, but for this moment he is the master of the world, with the Senate, Emilia and Egypt all lined up elegantly side-stepping back and forth as if at some Versailles masque.
We see this thirst for power more clearly in Soffre talor del vento, in which more men with ships on their heads are moved around the stage by Cesare, wielding a croupier’s stick.** Having ensured that Marzia is aware of his power (and its threat to her father), Cesare metaphorically whips up the elements and ‘wrecks’ the ships, the dancers sprawling on the floor. It was a clever idea, even if I was slightly annoyed by the ships-on-heads. It was even funnier because Fagioli (accidentally?) got one of the dancers’ discarded jackets stuck on his croupier’s stick. Having failed to get it off in time, he drew the note out into a cadenza which mirrored his shaking of the stick; until, with a final exasperated note, he stamped on the jacket, and slammed the stick down onto the stage.
Per te spero was an example of how arias can be very well staged, very simply, in which the additional elements were closely tied to the text. As she questions Fulvio’s loyalty to her, Emilia assures him that he’s the only one she loves – that he alone gives her a reason to carry on – while inwardly scorning him as a traitor. During the aria each of them is accompanied by a kneeling stagehand holding a mask to indicate the joint dissembling going on. Perhaps others would think it too simple, a cliche, but I liked it. And the masks became a recurring motif: they turn up again in È folia se nascondete, when Marzia sings about how foolish it is, trying to hide one’s love for someone, when the slightest accidental expression or gesture can give it away. Surrounded by men holding masks, she toys with them and then finally pushes them all aside, accepting that sooner or later she will have to be open about her passion for Cesare.
And that brings me to Cesare’s two romantic arias, which may not exceed his bravura pieces in spine-tingling panache but which do offer two of the most beautiful moments of the opera. Once again I was surprised to find that both were subtly different to the impression I got from the CD. Part of that was due to the production being edited. For example, they cut the recitative from Act 1 in which Cesare, faced with Marzia’s disdain, protests his admiration for Catone. Thus in the staged version we don’t see Marzia softening and turning to him with the words, ‘Now this is my Cesare!’ Instead, on stage, she is still standoffish as Cesare begins to sing Che un dolce amor condanna. I regret the loss of the recitative with its more nuanced characterisation, but on the other hand its absence allowed Fagioli to make more of the aria’s story.
Cesare spends the first A section trying to win Marzia over, caressing her and trying to embrace her, only to be rebuffed; and so, ever the strategist, he changes his tactics. In the da capo section he turns his back on Marzia and sprawls miserably in a chair, bemoaning his fate. She, no longer actively pursued, finds herself gradually drawn to him by this apparent sincerity. A shrewd hunter, Cesare lures in the prey by ignoring her approach until she has committed herself. Kneeling at his side, she eventually returns his caress, at which he draws her into his net – sorry, embrace – and finally achieves that long-desired kiss. It was very cleverly done and it made it clear that Cesare is just as manipulative with Marzia as he is with Emilia or Fulvio. He knows exactly how to play everyone around him. Marzia, for all her womanly wiles, is unwittingly outmanoeuvred by a master of the art. Perhaps this more cynical reading of Cesare’s character makes the end of the opera more bearable: we know that Marzia ends up with a man who actually loves her, rather than someone who sees her as just another piece on the board to be conquered.
The only aria which came close to challenging the roar of acclamation for the (gloriously flashy) Se in campo armato was the utterly sublime Quell’ amor che poco accende. Having sent off Arbace in pursuit of Marzia, Cesare reflects on the problems that arise when a simple love becomes an all-consuming obsession. In the past I’d thought he was singing about his love for Marzia – how only now, in the act of letting her go, he realises how much he loves her – or perhaps how relieved he is that, in leaving her, he has freed himself from emotional distractions. But now it occurred to me that he’s actually singing about his love of power and his inability to let that go. As he leans against the model of the Colosseum, death’s-head figures emerge from behind the ruin. They offer him golden victor’s wreaths. But then, as they depart, they draw daggers on him behind his back, foreshadowing the Ides of March. I found it a strong and very powerful twist to the aria: Cesare, it seems, almost knows what is likely to happen to him but he still – foolishly – believes he can control those around him.
A thought on the closing scene. It is problematic, but that’s Metastasio’s fault and I can understand why his first audiences were a bit nonplussed. There’s a quartet towards the end of Act 3, with everyone getting into a spat of name-calling in a very Italianate fashion, which you’d expect to turn into a final chorus. But then Metastasio throws in a final extended recitative, during which Catone simply dies at length. I was unavoidably reminded of the protracted death of Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, although Sancho did die with considerably more grace. I thought this production dealt with this tricky scene as elegantly as possible.
In real life, Cato committed suicide by pulling out his own entrails (they were all or nothing, those Stoics), but fortunately the opera played this in a very Baroque fashion. Sancho comes on with a crimson ribbon spilling from a slit in his doublet and simply continues ruthlessly to pull it out, to the horror of those around him. Cesare’s little moue of disgust when he enters is delightful. It does all rather fizzle out at the end, and you do rather wish that Vinci had insisted on some kind of closing chorus if only as a punctuation mark. However, the melodrama of it all was handled well, in an appropriately Baroque fashion. As Fagioli’s performance made clear, this Catone is at its best when it stops trying to be clever and channels pure Baroque. After all, they’ve already committed themselves to original practices in their decision not to allow a single woman on the stage.
So: final thoughts. I’d been anxious before this trip; very anxious. I’d been deeply underwhelmed by the advance production photos, and I was unimpressed by the flummery of parrots, rats and so forth. I’m still unimpressed. But in general I found Catone enjoyable despite its flaws. Part of that was due to the splendid music, the orchestra and the cast’s singing, all of which I praised very highly in my other post. Part of it was due to the sheer mind-boggling awesomeness of the venue. But much of it was down to the cast’s dramatic performances, and I must commend everyone, even if two in particular stood out for me.
Yes, I’d expected Fagioli to steal the show, although perhaps not quite as comprehensively as he did. He gave the impression that no one had broken the news to him that it wasn’t 1728 and he wasn’t actually Carestini, and I loved it. I was more surprised by how impressive I found Chenez. Knowing nothing about him, and being rather fond of his predecessor, I had expected simply to find him ‘good’, but he gave Marzia verve, sass and poignancy and made her his own in a way that I found completely charming. Even during the curtain call he and Fagioli still seemed to be entirely in character as the applause, cheers and foot-drumming rained down from the heavens of the Opéra Royal.
It was great fun and, despite some infelicitous staging, a satisfying end to almost a year of waiting. And of course, seeing it at Versailles made for one of the most fabulous 30th-birthday presents I could have asked for.
Sadly there is not yet a DVD so that you can share my bafflement, but I hope there will be.
* I live in hope that in some future production Fagioli will be allowed to make his entrance wearing six-foot-high crimson plumes and riding a white horse. If this ever happens, I will be most pleased.
** If anyone knows the proper name for the croupier stick that is used to push units around a military strategy map, then I would be most grateful. Google has failed me on this.