We owe the rediscovery of Leonardo Vinci primarily to the determination of countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic to revive his operas with forces that aim to approximate, as closely as possible, those for which they were written, which nowadays strike us as unusual, even bizarre, though the 18th century thought differently.
Regarded very much as an equal by Vivaldi and Handel, Vinci, who died in 1730, comparatively young and supposedly murdered by his mistress's jealous husband, trained in Naples, but wrote his major operas for Rome, where a papal proscription, in force since 1599, forbade women from appearing on the stage. Vinci consequently wrote for all-male casts, deploying castratos as his heroines as well as some of his heroes: the practice was not, in fact, uncommon in castrato-obsessed Italy at the time.
The Baroque revival has seen his work championed by, amongst others, Simone Kermes and Cecilia Bartoli, but a turning point was reached in 2012 when Cencic decided to perform and record Vinci's Artaserse with the castrato roles taken by virtuoso countertenors, a ground-breaking achievement that opened ears to a composer of remarkable psychological perception and depth, and revealed the startling potential of the countertenor voice itself. Now we have Catone in Utica cast along similar lines, and though it doesn't, perhaps inevitably, bring with it the element of surprise, even shock, that accompanied its predecessor, we are dealing, I think, with a greater work and arguably a finer recording.
The opera dramatises the final days of Marcus Cato, one of the last great libertarians of the Roman Republic. A fierce opponent of the military and imperial ambitions of Julius Caesar, he committed suicide at Utica in North Africa in 46 BC when defeat at the hands of Caesar's forces became inevitable. The subject was of immense importance in the early 18th century when republican and imperial ideologies vied for supremacy. There were two major literary treatments in English. Nicholas Rowe's hugely influential translation of Lucan's Pharsalia, of which Cato is the morally impeachable hero, was published in 1718. Even more important, however, was Joseph Addison's play Cato, first performed in 1713, the appearance of which was to have far-reaching consequences.
The play became a rallying cry for liberal supporters of the Protestant Hanoverian succession in the face of a potential return to Catholicism under the Jacobite branch of the Stuarts, who had the more legitimate claim to the British throne. Its success was even greater, however, in Britain's American colonies, where its libertarian ideology became integral to demands for independence: the revolutionary slogan “Give me liberty or give me death”, derives from one of Cato's speeches; during the War of Independence, George Washington insisted the play be performed for his army at their camp at Valley Forge.
Translated into Italian in 1715, Addison's Cato was also the source for Metastasio's libretto, which Vinci was to be the first composer to set it in 1728. The great cry for liberty remains at its centre in one of the big confrontations between Catone and Cesare around which the work is structured. The overall tone, however, has changed. The hidden relationship between private agendas and political decisions has become Metastasio's principal theme, and the opera is essentially a tragedy in which both ideological loftiness and deceit are brought into sharp moral focus.
Catone is insistent that his daughter Marzia should marry Arbace, the Numidian prince who loves her and is her father's political ally. Both men are unaware, however, that Marzia, in less troubled times, was Cesare's mistress: the pair are still in love, though Cesare, unscrupulous throughout most of the opera's course, is persistently willing to sacrifice the relationship for his ambition. The situation is complicated by the presence in Utica of Emilia, the widow of Cesare's murdered enemy Pompey, an altogether more vindictive figure than her sorrowing counterpart, Cornelia, in Handel's Giulio Cesare. She, in her turn, is ostensibly being pursued by Fulvio, a senatorial legate, apparently of Cesare's party, though Metastasio tellingly leaves his loyalties unclear.
Metastasio was a greater, more subtle writer than many have assumed, and the opera's dramaturgy is dependent for its impact on constantly shifting perspectives that repeatedly cast doubt on its protagonists' motivations. Marzia strings Arbace along with promises of eventual marriage and urges her father to consider peace, all of which hides her determination to repeatedly manoeuvre herself into Cesare's presence. Cato's moral nobility masks a catastrophic inflexibility of will, and though his opposition to political tyranny is portrayed as wholly admirable, he proves to be a tyrant himself in private: when the truth eventually comes out about Marzia's feelings for Cesare, he disowns her, announcing he wishes he had killed her at birth. Metastasio deceives us himself in his depiction of the emotional havering between Fulvio and Emilia, initially leading us to believe that Fulvio is lulling her into a false sense of security in order to be able to spy on Cato's camp: it gradually becomes apparent, however, that his feelings for her are sincere, and that it is she who is exploiting his sexual interest as part of her own plot to have Cesare assassinated.
Vinci's score probes the resulting ambiguities with great subtlety. Militarism and seduction frequently collide. Cesare, as one might expect, has the lion's share of the display pieces: the role was written for the castrato Carestini and his arias, with their ferocious coloratura covering a colossal range, are tracked by obbligatos for trumpet or horns, the latter a constant reminder that he is essentially a hunter homing in on his prey. Catone is a tenor, as is Fulvio: Catone's noble vocal lines turn precariously angular and clipped under stress, while Fulvio's protestations of desire are lyrical and at times deeply erotic. His 'Nacesti alle pene’, dreamily addressed to Emilia is one of the opera's two great declarations of love: the other, 'Quell amor che poco accende’, exposes Cesare's only moment of weakness, when he thinks Marzia is moving away from him. Marzia's grand statements of passion and rage mark her out as being very much his companion, musically as well as emotionally – again the span of the vocal line is often immense – while Emilia's high-lying arias alternately wheedle and sputter with fury. Arbace, struggling to maintain both integrity and dignity in the chaos that surrounds him, has the most consistently beautiful and reflective music in the score.
Throughout we're aware of a great melodist at work – it's no wonder that Handel and Vivaldi regarded Vinci as a serious rival – and his dark-hued orchestration reveals remarkable surety. More pertinently, perhaps, he allows traditional structure to buckle as the dramatic tension mounts. Continuo gradually gives way to full orchestra in the recitatives, and when we reach the denouement, the pattern of recitative and aria collapses, first into ensemble writing, then into the extended passage of through-composed recitative that brings the opera to its disorientating close.
The ending was one aspect of the work that its first audiences found problematic. The premiere, at Rome's Teatro delle Dame, seemingly aroused mixed feelings. Metastasio offended contemporary sensibilities by locating Emilia's attempted assassination of Cesare in a disused underground aqueduct – by implication a sewer, and a potent symbol of the moral depths to which everyone has sunk, except Arbace, the only character absent from the scene. Doubts were also raised about the appropriateness of Catone's suicide – he bleeds to death on the stage, having stabbed himself off it – as a subject for performance in papal Rome where suicide was considered a mortal sin. When other composers, Handel and Vivaldi among them, took up the libretto, they tinkered with the final scenes. Vivaldi's Catone is forcibly prevented from killing himself, paving the way for eventual reconciliation with Cesare, which makes nonsense of much that has gone before. Handel's 1732 pasticcio – superbly revived at this year's London Handel festival – retains Catone's suicide, though Handel, unwilling to end the work with recitative, follows it with a scene in which Marzia becomes deranged: her closing aria, ironically, is the now-famous ‘Vo Solcando’, which Handel imported from Vinci's own Artaserse.
Issued to coincide with a European tour of the work with the same forces, the recording, meanwhile, is a stunner. Cencic casts himself as Arbace, effectively leaving Franco Fagioli's Cesare and Juan Sancho's Catone centre stage. All three performances are finely judged. Cencic's dark, warm voice is extraordinarily beautiful, and the quiet intensity of his singing, all deep feeling and rapturously sustained lines, admirably suggests a man whose emotional sincerity is compounded with innate moral fibre. Fagioli's Cesare, in contrast, is all hauteur and reckless flamboyance. Not everyone will like his frequent plunges into chest voice, or his aspirated, Bartoli-ish way with the coloratura, though his accuracy and precision is a feat in itself that continually startles. Sancho, meanwhile, proves to be both an exceptional technician and a remarkable vocal actor: his loftiness and rage hit home with every phrase; his denunciation of Valer Sabadus's Marzia is genuinely terrifying, while his death scene, complete with its prophecy of Cesare's own assassination at the hands of Brutus, is immensely powerful in its naturalism.
Sabadus makes a sensuous, even voluptuous-sounding Marzia, all heightened emotions and stroppy grandeur, in marked contrast to Vince Yi's icily self-controlled Emilia. Sabadus's tone can sometimes lose warmth in his lower registers, for which he compensates for spectacular abilities elsewhere, including the kind of pinprick high staccatos one associates primarily with the great divas of yesteryear. Just occasionally you also wish there was a bit more bite to Yi's explosions of anger, though he and Sabadus work wonderfully well together in the big confrontations between the two women.
No one is likely to have any qualms about Martin Mitterrutzner's Fulvio, though, sung with persuasive sensuality and an appealing gleam in the tone throughout. You can't fault Il Pomo d'Oro under its violinist-director Riccardo Minasi, either. The playing, all suave strings, fiery brass and rich woodwind, is tremendous in both finesse and enthusiasm, and throughout they generate that crackle of electricity familiar to anyone who has heard these musicians at London's Wigmore Hall, and you understand completely why they have become today's ‘period’ ensemble of choice for Italian Baroque. An outstanding recording of a remarkable work, with complete text and translations provided, and highly recommended.