Four years before his death in poverty, Vivaldi wrote one of his most outstanding operas, Catone in Utica, which premièred to huge success in Verona in 1737.  Even the future German Emperor Charles VII, who was in the audience, wrote in his travel journal how much he was delighted by the exquisite performance of Vivaldi’s cast.

Il Complesso Barocco © Jose Luis Martinez
Il Complesso Barocco
© Jose Luis Martinez

The libretto, written by Metastasio and previously set to music by several other composers (among them Vinci, Hasse and Leo), is loosely based on Roman history and concerns the invisible line between love and political intrigues. But what distinguishes Vivaldi's opera from the others is not only the beauty and inventiveness of his arias, but also his crucial plot change – instead of Metastasio’s tragic (and factual) ending, Vivaldi offers a beaming catharsis: his operatic Cato, the senator who rebelled against Caesar and committed suicide rather than surrender, opts for compromise and is happily reconciled with Emperor Caesar.

The conductor Alan Curtis has succesfuly resurrected this forgotten opera, a real musical treasure, with the help of musicologist Alessandro Ciccolini, who had the almost impossible task of restoring the whole missing first act. With the stunning capacity to tune into the musical sense of a composer who lived almost 300 years ago, Ciccolini has basically composed the introductory sinfonia, five arias and recitatives, using materials from Vivaldi’s instrumental works. The result is fascinating – every aria is incisive, melodically coherent, and fits the dramatic context perfectly.

Unfortunately, the performance in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées had sudden last-minute casting changes: instead of Topi Lehtipuu, Canadian tenor Colin Balzer took the role of the main character Catone, and mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup interpreted Cesare instead of Roberta Mameli. Both of them had the delicate task of replacing outstanding singers already known and heard on a recent recording of this opera.

Balzer’s first aria, “Con si bel nome in fronte”, was slightly unsure, especially in the higher range. But his voice gained assurance, volume, and precision in the second act, with the electrifying aria di sdegno “Dovea svenarti allora”, written by Vivaldi himself.

But the real star of the evening was mezzo Ann Hallenberg, in the role of Pompey’s widow, the vindictive Emilia. From the first aria, “O nel sen di qualche stella”, she displayed her powerful vocal abilities and musical intelligence, wowing the audience with her flawless , silky style, while never sounding mechanical or succumbing to mannerism. Her vocal splendor burst in her carefully shaped phrasing, rounded coloratura and excellent projection.

The second mezzo, Caitlin Hulcup in the role of Cesare (sung in Vivaldi’s première by star soprano castrato Lorenzo Girardi), succeeded with a beguiling “Apri le luci e mira” in striking delicate emotional cords. Her legatos were softly rounded and her Cesare didn’t lack subtlety and feminine sensitiveness.

As Marzia, Catone’s virile daughter in love with Cesare, contralto Sonia Prina was convincing, if slightly too formal and hard-edged. She was certainly at her best in the furiously sweeping “Se parto, se resto”.

Portuguese soprano Ana Quintans, as Arbace, was surprising with her dazzling coloratura, while in the role of Fulvio, young Norea Berraondo was disappointing with her lack of volume and projection.

The orchestra, Il Complesso Barocco, performed competently throughout the concert, but in certain movements they lacked the depth and the nuances needed to truly make it special. Overall the concert was excellent, and Curtis has done a terrific service in discovering and reconstructing this mostly unknown opera.

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