- Catone in Utica, opera
Opera seria of the 18th century, known mostly to specialists 30 years ago, was rediscovered by virtuoso sopranos and countertenors. Now it's ready for prime-time in the form of full-opera recordings, on a major label, with top-notch singers. Countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic appeared in a Virgin Classics recording of Leonardo Vinci's opera "Artaserse" and followed it in 2015 with this version of the same composer's "Catone in Utica," a tale of the military and romantic intrigues surrounding the conflict of Cato the Younger (or Cato of Utica) with Julius Caesar, ending with the suicide of the former. The libretto, by Pietro Metastasio, became one of the most popular of the entire century, with settings by Vivaldi, J.C. Bach, and, as late as 1789, Giovanni Paisiello. Even Handel reworked a setting by Leonardo Leo and others for the Haymarket in London, but this was the very first version, premiered in Rome in 1728. Because of the Pope's ban on female performers, it was written for an unlikely quartet of countertenors in lead roles. This actually works, though: musically, the opera alternates between big martial set pieces and lush romantic numbers whose melodic ease looks forward to Gluck (sample the Act II, scene 6 aria of Marzia, Cato's daughter, CD 2, track 12). Cencic and Franco Fagioli, as Caesar, have the power to rise above the natural horns of the historical-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro, and all the singers deliver dramatically convincing performances that give the lie to the usual conception of opera seria (when people have any conception of it at all) as a dramatically static vehicle for virtuoso singing. This is a splendid recording, with sound from the appropriate Villa San Fermo in Lonigo that blunts none of the considerable dramatic impact. At a time when democracies are often under siege, here's an opera that matters, and that works, musically and dramatically.