The world of early 18th century opera was very different to that of, say, Mozart. The story was the thing. Librettos were offered to musicians as a means of getting the poetic drama before the public. Thus the great librettists were set multiple times. So it was with Vienna's imperial poet Metastasio's Catone in Utica
. This story, set in the ancient Numidian city of Utica - now a ruin in Tunisia - involves the Roman Cato the Younger and his conflict with Julius Caesar. The plot itself is the usual mixture of love and betrayal, but because it was by Metastasio there were at least two settings, by Vinci and Hasse, even before Vivaldi composed the present piece.
Unfortunately the first act of his setting has gone missing and thus whilst we know the libretto, we don't know anything about the music. In an attempt to present as complete a work as possible for Naïve's Vivaldi Edition, of which this is an amazing Volume 55, it was decided to record a reconstruction of Act 1, followed by Vivaldi's own music for Acts 2 and 3. The reconstruction by Alessandro Ciccolini is as scholarly as one could wish and the details are exhaustively described and charted in the accompanying booklet. What we hear is derived from 'real' Vivaldi but extrapolated into a full set of arias and recitatives. Just one aria in Act 1 is fully Vivaldi in that he composed it all, it is believed, for this opera. For the listener, the result of all this effort is 69 minutes of 'almost Vivaldi' followed by 92 minutes of actual Vivaldi. The only thing not explained in the documentation is why this decision was made. We are not told why they did not simply record Acts 2 and 3 which exist as an autograph score by the 'Red Priest' himself. I found this fact oddly disturbing because, so convincing is Ciccolini's reconstruction, one is left marvelling that it is possible to produce such realistic ersatz Vivaldi. Can one imagine doing this with Beethoven or Brahms? However, to give this some context, this is not the first time this particular opera has been reconstructed and recorded. A previous effort by Jean-Claude Malgoire and La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy is available on Dynamic.
There can be no doubt that this opera is a delight from start to finish. Vivaldi is his usual inventive self - at least those bits he actually wrote - with an ear for the felicitous phrase and the finest of lyrical invention. He is judicious in his use of the orchestra; mostly just strings and wind but near the end with the addition of triumphal brass. Only once do we have a chorus, the soloists together, and it lasts less than a minute. The six soloists are very fine, though I did question the vocal control of Roberta Mameli as Cesare in just one Act 1 aria Vaga sei nè sdegni tuoi
. The orchestra under their experienced American director Alan Curtis, are quite wonderful. Curtis has a musical CV of the first order as scholar, player and conductor. His baroque and early classical discography is very impressive. The present recording is little short of spectacular in its realism. The orchestra spreads convincingly and the soloists were standing just behind my speakers, especially the centre speaker which was actually off. That is how good a sound-picture engineer Jean-Daniel Noir has achieved.
See also review by Brian Wilson and Geoffrey