"I am just come from a long, dull, and consequently tiresome Opera of Handel's, whose genius seems quite exhausted...” Such was the grumpy verdict of John Hervey, first Earl of Bristol, writing to his friend Stephen Fox after a performance of Handel's latest pasticcio, Catone in Utica, on 4 November 1732 at King’s Haymarket. In his quest to give the London public a taste for Italian opera, every season Handel would include a pasticcio, an accepted mode of creating opera in which the organising genius could use a collage of music from different composers to set any given libretto. Pasticcio was thus an ideal way of exposing the audience to several musical styles in one evening, as well as showcasing a variety of singing talent. In 1732, Handel chose Metastasio’s libretto on the tragically noble suicide of Cato the Younger after his defeat by Julius Caesar in Utica in 46 BC, mainly using Leonardo Leo’s 1729 setting from the Venice Carnival, but transposing, editing or even entirely replacing its various arias to suit the skills of the singers he had at his disposal, the pasticcio process which eventually results in a unique work, rather than just a hashed rerun.

Christina Gansch © Askonas Holt
Christina Gansch
© Askonas Holt

One of Handel’s first changes was to alter Cesare from a countertenor to a bass role, leaving Catone as the only countertenor (at the time, castrato) on stage. At St George’s, Hanover Square, the splendid isolation of Catone, philosophically and emotionally, was brought out all the more strongly by the immediate contrast between Christopher Robson’s ineffably soft, silky countertenor and Christopher Jacklin’s powerful, vivid bass: their exchanges felt like a dispute between brain and body, theory and action. Robson stepped in valiantly at only 48 hours’ notice to replace an ailing Andrew Watts, and his courage and commitment can only be admired. Necessarily, Robson could not exert absolute dramatic conviction over his role with so little time, and his performance could not match the others on stage, but he sang with care, stamina and an ethereal lyricism which was truly appealing. If power was lacking, so was any opportunity for preparation.  

Christopher Jacklin was nothing short of fabulous as Cesare, singing commandingly and with a conspiratorial smile. Jacklin radiated warmth and charisma, reminding us not only why Cato’s daughter Marzia, but the whole world, falls for this soon-to-be-dictator. It is Cesare’s rise to absolute power that Catone cannot tolerate, killing himself rather than live in a world in which Caesar rules supreme: Metastasio makes it clear that Catone’s high ideals are outdated. While Catone is admirable, Cesare is the attractive, powerful future.

Without doubt the sassiest soprano on stage was Christina Gansch, singing Emilia with conviction and bite, her lusciously full voice bringing bags of attitude to the role of Pompey’s implacable widow. Gansch acted superbly, not afraid to add dramatic textures to her voice with sighs and purrs, making Emilia angry, bitter and fabulous. Erica Eloff gave a committed, spirited performance as Cato’s daughter Marzia, with lots of strength and sensitivity in her soprano. Metastasio doesn’t develop Marzia much beyond adolescent petulance, but Eloff managed to bring a certain passionate poignancy to the girl who must swear eternal hatred to her true love, Cesare, in accordance with her father’s dying wish. As Marzia’s would-be lover Arbace, Emilie Renard constantly impressed, always seeming on top of her music. A stylish, engaging singer with a flawless sense of attack, Renard acted well throughout the evening, bringing a boyish flair to her trouser role.

Tom Foster, conducting from the harpsichord, produced a sumptuously taut and burnished sound from the orchestra of Opera Settecento: every note sounded perfectly placed, and I have never enjoyed an orchestra more. Even when Robson struggled with his unfamiliar role, the orchestra showed no hesitation, smoothly persevering to gorgeous effect. As the evening went on, their playing remained consistently excellent.  

It has to be said that, musically, this pasticcio sounds (perhaps unsurprisingly) a bit patchy. A few stunning arias stand out for miles. Particular highlights are Cesare’s “Non paventa del mare” from Porpora’s Siface and “So che nascondi”, set to the dancing melody of “Benchè nasconda” from Vivaldi’s Orlando; Arbace’s “Quando piomba” from Porpora’s Poro;  Emilia’s ravishingly lovely “Vede il nocchier” from Hasse’s Euristeo; and the irrepressible firework display that is Marzia’s “Vò solcando” aria from Vinci’s Artaserse, a blisteringly beautiful finale. All the young singers realised that you have to really attack this music to get anything out of it: and the rewards can be superb, for singer and audience. But it does take time for any sense of adrenalin to percolate through: much of the music, though played exquisitely by the orchestra of Opera Settecento, doesn’t honestly set the heart on fire. The world has lived without it for the last 283 years: while I wouldn’t condemn it to silence for so long again, Handel’s Catone in Utica is more an intriguing curio than a must-see. Still, the large London Handel Festival audience were more than appreciative.