Juan Sancho Catone, Franco Fagioli Cesare, Valer Sabadus Marzia, Max Emanuel Cencic Arbace, Vince Yi Emilia, Martin Mitterrutzner Fulvio, Il pomo d’oro, Riccardo Minasi
233:42 (3 CDs)
Decca 478 8194
First given in Rome at the Teatro delle Dame in January 1728, Catone in Utica was the first collaboration between Leonardo Vinci and Metastasio. In accordance with the Papal decree forbidding women on the Roman opera stage, it was given with an all-male cast, a format followed in this first recording, with countertenors taking the female parts. To those familiar with Handel’s operas, the libretto may seem excessively lengthy, with much longer stretches of secco recitative than London audiences were prepared to take. For anyone prepared to remember that in the 17th and for much of the 18th century the librettist took precedence over the composer, a reading of Metastasio’s masterly book as literature will prove rewarding. It tells of the power struggle between two giants of the Roman world, the dictator Julius Caesar (Cesare) and Cato the Younger (Catone), the upholder of traditional republican ideals.
This battle of political wills forms the backdrop to the military action in which Cesare and Catone are engaged. Within this context the love interest for once takes on a background role, though it remains as complex as ever. It involves primarily the love between Catone’s daughter Marzia and Cesare, revelation of which not surprisingly leads to rejection by her father, a heroic man whose stubborn pride is his Achilles heel. Catone’s ally, the Numidian prince Arbace, also loves Marzia, while a secondary couple is formed by Pompey’s widow Emilia and the Roman legate Fulvia, though Emilia is rather more interested in revenge on Cesare than romance. The denouement is unusual, with the defeated Cato dying on stage after stabbing himself and Cesare lamenting the loss of his one-time friend in a final few lines of plain recitative. It was a genuinely tragic denouement that did not go down well with Roman critics; Metastasio, ever sensitive to criticism, subsequently produced a second, less austere ending used by most composers who later set the libretto.
Vinci’s score is richly orchestrated for pairs of oboes and horns, trumpet, the usual strings and continuo, here including theorbo and guitar, neither to the best of my knowledge listed in any early 18th-century Italian theatre orchestra. Equally anachronistic are the timpani added – excessively noisily – to the overture and Cesare’s ‘Se in campo’ (act 2); I’ve become increasingly irritated by so-called HIP conductors (usually Italian) who see fit to add timpani as soon as they catch a whiff of a trumpet part.
While not without weaker moments (mostly in act 2), the arias maintain a high level of interest and variation. Vinci takes particular care to show both sides of Cesare’s character, the tenderness he displays toward the grieving Emilia and his love for Marzia in two gracious cantabile arias in act 1 contrasted strongly with the martial coloratura of ‘Se il campo’ and the ‘simile’ aria ‘Soffre talor’ (both act 2). The role is sung and projected by Franco Fagioli with real distinction, the beauty of his cantabile matched by the accuracy of his divisions, impressive chest notes and accomplished ornamentation, including trills. Even better are the superb arias Vinci provided for the proud Catone, a tenor role here well essayed by Juan Sancho with strongly confident singing and a fine technique tested to his detriment only when he asks too much of himself by over-elaborating da capo repeats. Especially memorable is his furious dismissal of the Roman legate Fulvio, ‘Va, ritorno’ (act 2), the orchestral contrapuntal chromaticism underpinning a magnificent display of defiance. Cato’s daughter Marzia also displays distinctively contrasting character traits, haughtily dismissive toward her would-be admirer Arbace while fiercely guarding her love for Caesar and concern for her father. Valer Sadabus’ singing of the role is marred only by an occasional lack of control. Max Emanuel Cencic’s Arbace, a weak character in the face of Marzia’s strong personality, is sung with his customary authority and tonal beauty, the pain of the intensely chromatic act 2 aria ‘Che sia la gelosia’ touchingly conveyed by Cencic’s finely poised singing. Emilia is a less rounded figure, driven by her hatred of Caesar, who she blames for her husband’s murder, the story of which she recounts in a dramatic accompagnato, one of such passages unexpectedly encountered in a opera of this date. Vince Yi’s distinctive – and here at least very feminine sounding – timbre allied to a highly accomplished technique is ideally suited to the role, while her admirer Fulvio is sung with real style by the young German tenor Martin Mitterrutzner; his love-sick ‘simile’ aria ‘Piangendo ancora’ (act 1) has a text whose beauty is matched by Vinci’s exquisite music.
If the vocal contribution maintains a generally high level, Riccardo Minasi’s direction begs a number of question marks. While the playing he draws from his Pomo d’Oro maintains throughout an admirable level of fiery dramatic conviction in allegros and Italianate lyricism in andantes, it is regrettably also prone to the kind of foibles frequently encountered among Italian early music groups. They include eccentric exaggeration of tempo, rhythm, and dynamics, apparent here on rather too many occasions. An especially bizarre example can be heard in the triple chord bass figure in Arbace’s ‘È in ogni’ (act I). Despite such reservations, there is no doubting this is a highly significant and important release that casts fresh light on Vinci’s standing as one of the major figures in earlier 18th-century opera.
*Brian allocated 4 stars for the singing and 3.5 stars for the orchestral playing.