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Leonardo VINCI (c.1696-1730)
Catone in Utica (1728)
Juan Sancho (tenor) - Catone
Franco Fagioli (counter-tenor) - Cesare
Valer Sabadus (counter-tenor) - Marzia
Max Emanuel Cencic (counter-tenor) - Arbace
Vinci Yi (counter-tenor) - Emilia
Martin Mitterrutzner (tenor) – Fulvio
Il Pomo d’Oro/Riccardo Minasi
rec. February-March 2014, Villa San Fermo, Lonigo
290-page booklet and full Italian libretto with translations in German, English and French
DECCA 478 8194 [3 CDs: 78:59 + 76:27 + 78:36]

Vinci’s Catone in Utica was premièred in Rome in 1728 with an all-male cast. This followed the long-standing 1588 decree of Pope Sixtus V banning women from staged productions in the city. Thus in this opera the heroic male roles are taken exclusively by castrati, who also took over the female roles. The text is by Metastasio, who based it on Plutarch’s account of Cato’s suicide. This performance, luxuriating in an abundance of counter-tenors, is heard uncut.

Decca has some of the best counter-tenors on its books at the moment and three of the singers here – Sabadus, Cencic and Yi – were present on their ‘The 5 Countertenors’ blockbuster recently (review) which was a fine showcase for their talents. Here those talents are laser-focused on this single work to great advantage. It helps that orchestral duties are in the hands of Il Pomo d’Oro under their inspirational violinist and director Riccardo Minasi. He seldom misses a theatrical trick and unlike some – let’s say René Jacobs – equally seldom strays into the realm of redundant musical hyperbole. You couldn’t wish for a more well-paced or dramatically convincing opening three-part Sinfonia, drums to the fore and brass braying. The only time I’d fault him is in some moments when the baroque guitar accompaniment is too insistent. It can be thrilling but cumulatively can sound overdone. In Act II Scene XIII Minasi has Catone’s aria, Dovea svenarti aggressively accompanied in a way that is both thrilling and dubiously musical.

In the role of Cato is the tenor Juan Sancho, whose voice is powerfully directed though never stentorian; its potent upward extension is unforced, as he shows in his Act I Scene I aria Con sì bel nome. There’s some metal there too in Act II’s Va’, ritorna al tuo tiranno. The super-virtuosic Franco Fagioli assumes the role of Caesar and his crystalline purity is, predictably, one of the set’s greatest assets. That said, he shines as much in slow arias, where his legato is excellent, as in faster more imperious ones. For an example of the last, try Act II’s pomposo aria Soffre talor, where there’s a rich variety of orchestral colour to accompany him as he articulates in the B section, quite brilliantly, down to his chest voice.

Cencic takes the role of Arbace and one often finds him singing somewhat lower in his register than in other recordings. This brings out different colours in his voice and is testimony to his range and his tone colours – try Act II’s Che sia la gelosia. By contrast the more plaintive role of Marzia suits Valer Sabradus very nicely. Fellow counter-tenor Vince Yi reveals an appealingly girlish tone as Emilia, and his aria Piagendo ancora heralds an impersonation of some style. Tenor Martin Mitterrutzner is Fulvio and he has clearly mastered Leo’s demands for punchy characterisation in divisions.

Apart from the recitatives, in which several characters come together, the arias are overwhelmingly stand-alone, so it comes as a pleasure to hear four singers in the final scene. Fortunately, those many and sometimes involved recitatives are fluid and fast, though not breathless, an important quality given that they are sometimes lengthy.

The splendid booklet has a first class introduction and a full four-language libretto. At 290 pages it’s certainly chunky. This world premiere recording breathes triumphant life into Leo’s already theatrically convincing opera.

Jonathan Woolf



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