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Catone in Utica
Sabadus, Yi, Fagioli, Cencic, Sancho, Miterrutzner. Il Pomo d’Oro, Minasi. Italian libretto and translation. Decca 478 8194 (3)
THE VINCI COUNTERTENORS are back, following up the success of Artaserse with Catone in Utica. If Glimmerglass comes to mind, you’re thinking of Vivaldi’s later setting of Metastasio’s libretto, created in 1728 for Leonardo Vinci and first performed in Rome.
Rome. Remember those papal interdictions that outlawed women performers? With its title role written for tenor, Catone in Utica’s other five characters include two female roles and three heroic male roles, all created by castratos. Decca’s world premiere recording features four countertenors, the minor role of Fulvio given instead to a tenor.
I am as eager as anyone to experience thoughtful, uncut, dramatic presentations of forgotten eighteenth-century operas, but if you have to skip over recitatives, excruciatingly rendered by ugly, compromised voices, the effect is out of balance. Of course, eighteenth-century audiences paid little attention to recitatives, socializing until the next aria, which was signaled by a new font or indentation in their pocket-sized librettos. You too can listen in a historically authentic manner courtesy of your CD player’s skip function.
But it’s not just the recitatives. There is hideous vocalism that would never be accepted from a female voice, particularly from the infuriating countertenor Franco Fagioli, who takes the starring role of Cato’s enemy Caesar. The height of ridiculousness is Fagioli’s throaty, bleaty rendition of the virtuosic “Se in campo armato,” with cringe-worthy cadenzas, machine-gun tremolos for trills, and a hooded sound that obscures text. Thankfully the rest of Caesar’s arias are languishing, and Fagioli’s old-world vocal aesthetic—unrelenting vibrato and portamento—is put to good use in a sensitive, shapely rendition of the third act’s showstopper, “Quell’amor che poco accende.”
Recently, Max Emanuel Cenčić has settled more comfortably into alto roles, and he shows graceful phrasing in the uncomplicated “So che pietà non hai” and the introspective “Che sia la gelosia,” which ends Act II. He gets his chance at a bit of virtuosity in “Combattuta da tante vicende,” but Cenčić still renders recitative clumsily, singing co-RAY and a-mo-RAY oblivious to stress.
The female roles include Cato’s daughter Marzia, in love with the enemy Caesar, and Emilia, widow of Pompey and, as in Handel’s familiar Giulio Cesare, demanding vengeance. Vince Yi sounds juvenile as the noble Emilia, and his thin, nasal voice is unattractive. Valer Sabadus is the best of the countertenor lot, bringing to life the graceful, sympathetic Marzia with sensitive singing and easy high notes, especially in “E follia se nascondete,” which ends Act I. He can sound covered and remote, as in “In che t’offende,” but brings command to the accompanied recitative “Pur veggo alfine un raggio,” Metastasio’s scene set boldly in an underground aqueduct.
As Fulvio, tenor Martin Mitterrutzner displays an easy strength in his singing, but musters heroic force for the runs and leaps of “La fronda, che circonda.” Juan Sancho, in the title role, is reason enough to buy the CD, and even warrants listening to some of the recitatives. His singing is filled with imagination and variety, with heroic command for his first aria, “Con si bel nome,” whose trumpets and measured tempo suggest stately majesty, but whose triple meter hints at noble elegance. Sancho navigates the runs of “Si sgomenti alle sue pene” and brings bite to the angry, agitated “Dovea svenarti.” After a superb quartet for Cesare and Marzia against the vengeful Catone and Emilia, the opera ends with the onstage suicide of Catone, in masterful and touching accompanied recitative.
Il Pomo d’Oro, under the direction of Riccardo Minasi, provides colorful, energetic instrumental support. —Judith Malafronte
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