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GRAMOPHONE (07/2015)
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Decca 4788194

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Reviewer: David Vickers


Max Emanuel Cencic and his production company Parnassus Arts follow up their trailblazing recording of Vinci’s Artaserse (Virgin Classics, 1/13) with Catone in Utica. This not only further rehabilitates Vinci’s reputation but also restores an unabridged and complete first version of Metastasio’s libretto, elaborated from Plutarch’s account of the staunch Republican patriot Cato’s preference for committing suicide rather than submitting to the victorious dictator Julius Caesar. It was premiered in January 1728 in Rome, where a Papal decree forbade women from performing publicly onstage, so the original cast featured four castrati, two of whom sang the female characters: Marzia (Cato’s daughter, secretly in love with Caesar but betrothed to Arbace) and Emilia (widow of Caesar’s opponent Pompey).


Perhaps it is needless and anachronistic to reconstruct, as here, the Roman all-male cast using countertenors for both female roles, but there is no disputing everyone’s complete dedication to the cause. Cencic’s firm yet sensitively balanced singing conveys the pathos of Arbace’s numerous expressions of unrequited love for Marzia (‘Che sia la gelosia’ concludes Act 2 with elegant respite from the preceding turbulence). Franco Fagioli’s swollen vibrato and exaggerated articulation will not please everyone, but the braying horns and astonishing silent pauses during the valorous ‘Soffre talor del vento’ suit his aptitude for Caesar’s declamatory outbursts; Vinci unleashes high trumpet, two horns and thunderous drums to explosive theatrical effect for Caesar’s declaration of war after diplomacy has failed (‘Se in campo armato’). Vince Yi sounds appropriately feminine as Emilia but an accomplished female performer might prove a more adequate match for Il Pomo d’Oro’s brio in the spirited ‘O nel sen di qualche stella’. Likewise, Valer Sabadus’s limpid singing does not always reveal every aspect of Marzia’s personality evident in Metastasio’s poetry and Vinci’s music; her breathlessly disorientated description of her troubles during a rushed encounter with Cesare (‘Confusa, smarrita’) and an extraordinary accompanied recitative as she attempts to flee to safety through a subterranean aqueduct (Act 3 scene 5) are intensely dramatic highlights which a top-notch female singer might have invested with more searing passion (and firmer projection).


Juan Sancho’s beefy tenor aptly characterises Cato’s scepticism about reaching a diplomatic resolution (‘Va’, ritorna al tuo tiranno’ is a vigorously fugal denunciation of Caesar’s emissary), and his infuriated response to his daughter’s betrayal has a visceral malevolence comparable to Handel or Mozart at their most potent (‘Dovea svenarti allora’). At the other end of the scale, Fulvio’s eloquent self-pity in ‘Nascesti alle pene’ is accompanied by muted upper strings and pizzicato basses, although I can imagine it being sung with mellifluous delicacy rather than the ‘can belto’ ardency of Martin Mitterrutzner.


Il Pomo d’Oro, directed by concertmaster Riccardo Minasi, vividly characterise each scene with theatrical zest. The use of forceful guitar strumming in quick arias is tiresome, but otherwise the continuo team and singers ensure that reams of recitatives crackle along with a vital dramatic atmosphere. The opera’s thrilling climax springs some astonishing surprises, with a confrontational quartet followed by a chain of accompanied recitatives for the dying Cato and the remorseful Caesar, who curses his victory and throws down his laurel wreath as the curtain falls (a striking experiment with dramatic realism). Supported by Kurt Markström’s scholarly essay, this release boldly champions Vinci’s merits as a musical dramatist.


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