‘Handel/Leo/Hasse’ Catone in Utica
St George’s, Hanover Square. 17 March 2015
Opera Settecento. Tom Foster, musical director.
Erica Eloff & Christina Gansch, sopranos, Emilie Renard, mezzo, Christopher Robson, counter-tenor, Christopher Jacklin, bass-baritone.
This might be the year that we grow to love pasticcio operas, with Fabio Biondi’s well received reconstruction of Vivaldi’s compilation L’Oracolo in Messenia at The Barbican (see my review at https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/vivaldis-loracolo-in-messenia/) and now Opera Settecento’s excellent concert performance of Handel’s 1732 Catone in Utica, given in Handel’s own church of St George’s, Hanover Square as part of the London Handel Festival.
Handel used to present one pasticcio opera each season, a collecting together of arias, generally by other composers, some of it already well-known to the audience, to slot into the recitative of an opera. In the case of Catone in Utica, Handel drew principally on Leonardo Leo’s 1729 Catone, to a libretto by Metastasio. Handel reduced Leo’s recitatives and jettisoned all but eight of his arias, adding six by Johann Adolf Hasse (although not from Hasse’s own 1732 version of Catone), along with other arias by Porpora, Vivaldi and Vinci. He also removed one of Metastasio’s characters, leaving just five protagonists. As with most pasticco operas, the recitatives are all-important in carrying the plot. However the arias were more plot-neutral, and were therefore more easily transferred from other operas to suit the strengths of Handel’s available singers.
Metastasio’s libretto is based on the historic Cato the Younger (Marcus Cato ‘Uticensis’), an adversary of Julius Caesar in the last days of the Roman Republic. After Caesar’s defeat of Pompey, Cato and Pompey’s widow Emilia have fled to Utica, near Carthage, on the North African coast. Caesar arrives and tries to toady up to Cato, much to the disgust of Emilia and the confusion of Marzia, Cato’s daughter. She seems to be rather taken with Caesar, despite her father’s wish that she marry Arbace, Prince of Numidia. Cato rejects Caesar’s offer to share the dictatorship of the empire (and marriage to Marzia, already Caesar’s secret lover), and is eventually defeated by Caesar’s army, leading to his suicide and the start of the dictatorship of Imperial Rome.
In Handel’s version, Cesare is changed to a bass, Cato was sung by the castrati Senseino, and Arbace was a contralto trouser role. One of the strengths of Opera Settecento’s performance was the excellent choice of singers. Christopher Jacklin was the imposing Cesare, his opening aria, Non paventa del mare le procella from Porpora’s Siface (one of four based on storm-tossed seas) being a spectacularly virtuosic showpiece with an enormous range, wide vocal leaps and rapid scales, all delivered with aplomb. Vivaldi’s So che nascondi was a similarly bravura aria.
Emilia was sung by Christina Gansch, a young Austrian soprano who impressed me (and the judges) when I heard her singing in the final of Innsbruck’s Cesti Baroque Opera Singing Competition in 2013. Her opening aria, Chi mi toglie (from Hasse’s Attalo) demonstrated her beautifully warm and well-rounded tone. She later excelled in Sento in riva a l’altre sponde (from the same Hasse opera), accompanied by hushed strings and featuring an excellent expansion of the melodic line in the da capo. Her concluding virtuosic showpiece Vede il nocchier la sponda, again with outstanding treatment of the da capo and a wonderful cadenza, drew enthusiastic approval from her fellow singers. Although this was a concert performance, I was very impressed with Christina Gansch’s acting ability.
Erica Eloff was Marzia. Her arias ended all three of the Acts, positively with È follia se nascondete, mournfully with So che godendo vai and stunningly virtuosic with the conclusion of the opera, Vò solcando un mar crudele.
Emilie Renard seems to be cornering the market in trouser roles, always helped by her choice of clothing and attractive acting ability. Here she was Arbace, her showpiece coming with Vivaldi’s Vaghe luci, luci belle, featuring outstanding da capo ornamentation and vocal flourishes. The role of Catone was to have been taken by counter-tenor Andrew Watts, but his indisposition led to his very short notice replacement by Christopher Robson, much to his credit. Sadly, he was not on good form vocally, with an over-use of portamento and awkward breaks of register, although his concluding Per darvi alcun pegno was touching as Catone resigns himself to his fate.
I was very impressed with Tom Foster’s light touch direction from the harpsichord, as well as his sensitive continuo realizations, allowing himself just one real flourish as Arbace and Cesare, rather awkwardly reveal their joint love for Marzia. The youngish instrumentalists of the Orchestra of Opera Settecento played with musical sensitivity, with a notable contribution from cellist Natasha Kraemer. Oboeist Leo Duarte was responsible for producing the score, based on a manuscript from Hamburg.