CATONE IN UTICA (LONDON, 1732)

PASTICCIO OPERA IN THREE ACTS AFTER LEONARDO LEO’S CATONE IN UTICA TO A LIBRETTO BY METASTASIO [CONCERT PERFORMANCE SUNG IN ITALIAN] BY GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL

ST. GEORGE’S, HANOVER SQUARE, MARCH 17
(PART OF THE LONDON HANDEL FESTIVAL)


Opera

June 2015

Handel’s so-called pasticii – the composer never described them as such – belong to two distinct categories: this, three in number, in which he predominantly recycled music from his own earlier operas, and 12 further “compilation” works assembled from the music of other composers. The London Handel Festival gave Handelians the rare opportunity of sampling one of each type, Catone in Utica – based on a Metastasio setting by Leonardo Leo with additional arias by Vivaldi, Poro, Hasse and Vinci – and Giove in Argo, all but two of whose arias are familiar from other sources.

Catone dates from 1732 and was mounted as a stop-gap work while Handel added the finishing touches to Orlando, whose first cast was identical: Senesino as Catone/Orlando; Strada as Marzia/Angelica; Gismondi as Emilia/Dorinda; Bertolli as Arbace/Medoro, Montagnana as Cesare/Zoroastro. Senesino had sung the title role of Leo's opera – opposite Farinelli as Arbace - during the 1729 Carnival season in Venice where Handel was recruiting singers for his so-called “Second Academy”, launched later that year, and may well have attended a performance at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisoslomo.

Opera Settecento’s cast for LHF's concert performance included at least three finalists of previous festivals’ Handel Singing Competitions, ensuring high vocal and stylistic standards. Erica Eloff as Catone’s daughter Marzia, Emilie Renard as the Numidian Prince Arbace, and Christina Gansch as Emilia, widow of Pompey.

Few of their arias are what one might call top-drawer Leo, Vivaldi, Poro or Hasse – let alone Handel. He at least gave Strada one show-stopper, “Vò solcando un mar crudele”, despatched with bravura by Eloff. The audience was much taken with Christopher Jacklin's Cesare, who blustered his way through Montagnana's bravura arias effectively, if without ideal fluency in coloratura. By far the most engaging of the singers was Renard, in Farinelli’s role of Arbace, although hers was the easiest assignment since Handel gave her simpler arias to sing than Leo had composed for the world-famous castrato. The beautiful simplicity of Renard's singing was captivating throughout. Andrew Watts should have sung the title role, but indisposition brought in the veteran Christopher Robson, certainly a stylist with sufficient voice for this space, but who couldn’t disguise a certain loss of vocal power. Tom Foster's direction of Settecento’s band kept a good pace – Catone must be one of the shortest operatic entertainments Handel ever devised – but he couldn't really make a case for restoring this patchy work to the repertoire. It was nice to hear it once.