Catone in Utica, RV705 – Opera in three Acts to a libretto revised by the composer from Catone by Pietro Metastasio [Performing edition prepared by Alan Curtis & Alessandro Ciccolini; sung in Italian]
CD No: NAÏVE OP 30545 (3 CDs) Duration: 2 hours 47 minutes Reviewed: November 2013
Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica – Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis with Topi Lehtipuu, Roberta Mameli, Ann Hallenberg & Sonia Prina [Naïve]
Reviewed by Curtis Rogers
Naïve’s Vivaldi edition has established a high standard of scholarship and performance in its exploration of the extensive series of manuscripts constituting the Foà collection in the National Library of Turin. This benchmark is conspicuously maintained in the present recording of Catone in Utica (1737) by Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – their first for this series – which also comprises collaboration with Alessandro Ciccolini, who has recomposed the lost first Act. The opera was Vivaldi’s third and last (and most successful) offering in Verona, and in it he experimented with the new Neapolitan musical style (exemplified most famously in the work of Pergolesi), itself foreshadowing the simpler, more streamlined textures of composition in the Classical period. The opera was also a rare instance of Vivaldi’s setting a text by the celebrated 18th-century librettist, Pietro Metastasio (also largely eschewed by Handel, as it happened).
Ciccolini has reconstructed the first Act by writing new recitatives, borrowing the overture of L’Olimpiade, and adapting and fashioning all but one of the arias from the ritornelli of various Vivaldi concertos, as he did sometimes did himself for other operas. Jean-Claude Malgoire’s 2002 recording (from live performances) simply fitted other opera arias by Vivaldi to the relevant texts, but Ciccolini argues that his solution is able to provide music which fits more precisely dramatic and emotional contexts, compared to Malgoire’s procrustean approach. Ciccolini’s version is certainly coherent, even if it means that he has a greater hand in the finished result and that the music is relatively tame compared to the authentic Vivaldi of the other two Acts.
The cast makes a compelling case for a plot centred on the political and amorous entanglements which ensue from Catone’s continued resistance to (Julio) Cesare’s political domination after the latter eliminated Pompeo. Topi Lehtipuu’s Catone is noble and resolute, even when his daughter, Marzia, defies him in maintaining her romantic attachment with Cesare. Curiously, perhaps, Sonia Prina as Marzia sounds manlier, and at times also more defiant, than Cesare, though Roberta Mameli’s performance of the latter embodies both authority and wiliness. However, her singing of ‘Se mai senti’ in Act Two, as Cesare exhorts Marzia to remember his love, is a moment of magical intimacy.
Pompeo’s widow, Emilia, is driven by a desire to revenge his death upon Cesare, but Ann Hallenberg’s measured and seamless singing elicits considerable sympathy for the character, rather than revulsion for any manic obsession with violence. Romina Basso and Emőke Baráth as Fulvio and Arbace respectively sing with precision, and a winning levity at times, although with slightly less distinction than their colleagues. Ciccolini also wrote out the ornaments and cadenzas, but there is no audible loss of spontaneity and liveliness on the part of any of the singers.
Curtis’s direction of Il Complesso Barocco is spirited, keeping up an ideal pace as the drama unfolds, especially in the sometimes lengthy recitatives. More rhythmic vigour and drive might have been desirable in some arias, but the advantage is a reading that gives no impression of being forced or rushed. This is not an obvious starting place for newcomers to Vivaldi’s operas, but neither they, nor seasoned fans, will be disappointed by the delightful results.