Monday, 13 February 2017

Vinci - Catone in Utica (Versailles, 2015)

Leonardo Vinci - Catone in Utica

L’Opéra Royal de Versailles - 2015

Riccardo Minasi, Jakob Peters-Messer, Franco Fagioli, Juan Sancho, Max Emanuel Cencic, Ray Chenez, Martin Mitterrutzner, Vince Yi

Culturebox - 19 June 2015

On one level it's understandable that up to now, the operas of Leonardo Vinci have been largely overlooked when it comes to revivals of baroque opera from this period. While there is undoubtedly merit in the works, they are perhaps not as worthy of attention or interest as the works by Handel, Gluck, Vivaldi and Pergolesi, and there are surely other luminaries from the period like J.A. Hasse and J.C. Bach whose operas probably still haven't been given adequate attention.

On the other hand, as more of Vinci's work is being performed, it's becoming clear that it may not be the case that his operas - often alternatives of the same Pietro Metastasio librettos used by the above named composers - are in any way lesser works, but works that rather have more practical considerations for them remaining unknown and unperformed. To perform a Leonardo Vinci opera - and more importantly to do it well - you need a very high standard of countertenor to sing some of the roles.

As the extraordinary spectacle of the hugely successful 2012 Opéra National de Lorraine production of Vinci's final opera Artaserse demonstrated, that might not just mean one star countertenor, but up to five. Catone in Utica (1728) is another countertenor extravaganza, and if it isn't quite as demanding, it still needs four countertenors of great ability. Considering the rarity of singers of that quality, it's not surprising that the 2015 Versailles production of Catone in Utica shares some of the same star names as the Nancy Artaserse, (Valer Sabadus was also due to perform in this production but was unable to partipate)but it also introduces a few newer names worthy of attention in the future. With that kind of talent, Vinci's Catone in Utica is another joyful revelation.

Cato, the Roman senator of Utica in Africa, has pressing problems with the power struggles in the Capitol and Caesar's expansionist policies. The Numidian leader Arbace believes that there is an opportunity to stop Caesar in his tracks, but he has also come to see Cato on another pressing matter; he wants to marry the Senator's daughter, Marzia. Cato sees sense in the arrangement, gaining in Arbace a warrior who will be a valuable asset, so he proposes that the wedding take place immediately, that same day. Ah, if only things were that simple, but then it wouldn't be a Metastasio libretto if they were.

Marzia asks Arbace to put the wedding off for another day, putting him to the test to see if he is worthy of her. Arbace, as you might expect in an opera seria, agonises about this at length, but he has plenty of cause for such concern later when Caesar arrives.  The dictator turns up in Utica claiming that he is seeking reconciliation for the sake of Rome. Cato evidently doesn't believe him, not does Emilia, Pompey's widow. Despite Cato's advice to her to remain calm, she calls for vengeance for the death of her husband.

Inevitably, it's the romantic complications that heighten the tensions even further. To Cato's horror, Caesar has the hots for Marzia (the extravagance and urgency of his arias surely permit it to be described in this way), but he is even more shocked to find that Marzia is willing to marry the Emperor, provided that Caesar draws back on his political and military ambitions. Arbace, needless to say, has a few more arias to lament over this turn of events, and just to complicate the matters even further (like I say, it's Metastasio), Caesar's captain Fulvio fancies Emilia. That doesn't go down well either.

Vinci's opera seria treatment of the familiar political and romantic material of Catone in Utica doesn't appear to be anything exceptional. The first act is at least elegant and pleasantly scored if somewhat functional and a little routine in its pacing, with long da capo arias and a fair amount of recitative. Vinci however fires up the drama and the tempo considerably in Act II, and it's the characterisation of Caesar that has much to do with injecting a bit of life and danger into the routine drama. There's a fair bit of virtuoso writing for his arias, but it's the delivery that is important, and the urgency of it seems to have a ripple effect or, indeed, more of a tidal surge in how it impacts on Cato and Marzia in particular.

The delivery is everything here really, and again with Leonardo Vinci, it's the impact of the castrato writing and how it is sung by the countertenor voice that is the defining characteristic and saving grace of this work. In its own right, Vinci's version of Catone in Utica might just be yet another routine setting of the material (Vinci's was the first setting of a libretto that has also been used by Vivaldi and J.C. Bach), but it's the nature of the countertenor voices and the exceptional quality of the singers in those roles, that elevate the opera to a higher level of interest and beauty. Franco Fagioli obviously dominates here as the devious Caesar, as you would expect from one of the world's top flight countertenors. Max Emanuel Cencic fits that description too, and he's still wonderfully lyrical in the role of Arbace if sounding rather lighter than his countertenor counterparts here.

I was particularly impressed however with the two young countertenors in the female roles, both of whom are new to me, both of them sounding incredibly natural and unforced. Fagoli is unassailable with the kind of role that has been written for Caesar, but Ray Chenez almost steals the show as the rather more complex character of Marzia, with a strong singing and dramatic performance that undoubtedly contributes to the work as a whole. Vince Yi also impresses, with a lighter but beautifully lyrical countertenor voice as the fiery Emilia. The countertenors might steal the limelight, but there are equally fine performances from Juan Sancho as Cato and Martin Mitterrutzner as Fulvio.

Jakob Peters-Messer's production design and direction for Versailles is attractive and works well with the drama. It's elegant and classical, with a predominately monochrome colour scheme, but has some futuristic stylisations with designer rather than period costumes and extravagant hairdos. The staging suits the tone of the music, suggesting the antiquity of the setting with a few projections and flat cardboard miniatures, without having to build elaborate monuments and ruins. There is also a level of abstraction in the lighting, projections and in mysterious masked figures, with skulls and rats hinting at the underlying tones of power, death and horror that it finds in the work.

Those are brought out to some extent also by the Il Pomo d’Oro orchestra led from the violin by Riccardo Minasi. If much of the music sounds fairly conventional and the accompaniment of the recitative isn't particularly imaginative, there are welcome flourishes and drive in certain passages that work wonderfully with the singing of the countertenor. The combination allows the proceedings to spin off into thrilling flights of musical drama that belies the rather dry nature of the classical subject matter.

Links: L’Opéra Royal de Versailles, Culturebox