21 July 2015

CD REVIEW: Leonardo Vinci – CATONE IN UTICA (J. Sanco, F. Fagioli, V. Sabadus, M. E. Cencic, V. Yi, M. Mitterrutzner; DECCA 478 8194)

CD REVIEW: Leonardo Vinci - CATONE IN UTICA (DECCA 478 8194)LEONARDO VINCI (circa 1696 – 1730): Catone in UticaJuan Sancho (Catone), Franco Fagioli (Cesare), Valer Sabadus (Marzia), Max Emanuel Cencic (Arbace), Vince Yi (Emilia), Martin Mitterrutzner (Fulvio); Il Pomo d’Oro; Riccardo Minasi, conductor [Recorded in Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 27 February – 7 March 2014; DECCA 478 8194; 3 CDs, 233:42; Available from DECCA Classics, Amazon (USA), fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

In order to meaningfully advocate for the music of a forgotten composer, generalities must be avoided at all costs. It is informative in the most basic manner to state that a composer was a contemporary of this or that more famous name, but does this motivate a listener to hear that composer’s music with intensified interest? In the case of Leonardo Vinci, generalities sadly must do. Not even the year of this gentleman’s birth is known with certainty, but the anecdotal evidence of his extant scores, particularly his operas, offers glimpses of an unexpectedly unique voice that seems likely to have been heard with no little pleasure and appreciation during the first three decades of the Eighteenth Century. Furthermore, accounts of Vinci’s death, surely too salacious to be wholly apocryphal, are themselves the stuff of opera: allegedly murdered by the jealous husband of a poorly-chosen paramour, the Calabrian composer was at most forty years old at the time of his death in May 1730. A life little longer than Mozart’s, a demise worthy of Don Juan, and a gift for composing for the stage that prompted the genesis of several of the famous Metastasio’s most persuasive libretti: what more could be needed to rekindle interest in Vinci’s music in the Twenty-First Century? Recent years have taught artists and audiences alike that not every excavation among the brittle pages of libraries and archives unearths an unheralded masterpiece deserving of exhibition, but Max Emanuel Cencic, Georg Lang, and Parnassus Arts Production have frequently proved to possess the musical Midas touch. In their hands and those of Il Pomo d'Oro, Riccardo Minasi, and a superb cast, Vinci’s Catone in Utica is indeed a golden treasure. In generations past, DECCA was the label of authoritative performances of the operas of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini: in the new millennium, it is the home of innovation that unites the rediscovered past with the ever-transitioning future. Perhaps verifiable knowledge of Leonardo Vinci is mostly confined to generalities, but the virtues of this recording of his Catone in Utica are very specific.

First performed in Rome in 1728, Catone in Utica fell victim to the papal ban on theatrical performances by female artists founded upon too-literal interpretations of Scripture dating from the Pontificate of Leo IV in the Ninth Century, reinforced by Sixtus V in the 1580s and Innocent XI in the 1680s. Further creative manipulations of scriptural and ecclesiastical opinions on the rôles of the sexes in musical performances both liturgical and theatrical instituted the phenomenon of the castrato. As in an earlier opera like Stefano Landi’s 1632 Il Sant'Alessio, in which Cencic was unforgettable as the Sposa (the title saint's abandoned wife) in a touring production with Les Arts Florissants, even the female rôles in the first production of Catone in Utica were assigned to male singers. Strange as it may seem when viewed from the perspectives of modern notions of gender in opera, the recreation of this aesthetic permits heightened appreciation of the timbral homogeneity that composers such as Landi and Vinci likely expected to hear in scores created for all-male casts. To the credit of everyone involved with this recording, the casting of male singers in female rôles is managed completely without affectation: indeed, reversing the gender paradigm, female Cherubinos, Tancredis, Octavians, and Komponists could learn much from this recording about allowing text and musical context to convey a character's sex. Still, there are passages in which the interchanges of male voices, exacerbated by the preponderance of secco recitative, introduce dramatic inertness: though the singers make admirable efforts to differentiate their timbres, it is possible if not listening carefully to lose track of the plot. The continuo created by Federica Bianchi’s harpsichord and Simone Vallerotonda’s theorbo is splendidly effective at sustaining momentum, but the task is a difficult one. On the whole, though, Catone in Utica is an inspired work, Vinci’s craftsmanship rarely falling below the level of that of his best-known contemporaries, and this recording introduces the opera to the listener with a performance from which emanates passion that, as Beethoven suggested, makes perfection inconsequential.

Directed by violinist and conductor Riccardo Minasi, the musical magicians of Il Pomo d'Oro cast enthralling spells in virtually every bar of their parts. The tripartite Sinfonia with which the opera begins is played with rapier’s-point rhythmic accuracy, establishing the taut metrical atmosphere of the performance as a whole. Minasi’s affinity for Vinci’s idiom is immediately apparent, his tempi bringing the moods of each aria into sharp focus even before the singers utter a line of text. Whatever the circumstances of his musical education were, Vinci acquired a consummate mastery of the orchestra of his time, and his instrumental writing in Catone in Utica discloses a cleverness that rivals the work of Telemann and Vivaldi. Minasi and Il Pomo d’Oro are clearly no less inspired by Metastasio’s libretto, the poet’s first for a Roman theatre, than was Vinci himself, the sounds with which they support the singers’ enunciations of the words judged to enable nuanced inflections. Equals among virtuosi, bassoonist Anna Flumani, oboists Emiliano Rodolfi and Federica Inzoli, trumpeter Jonatha Pia and horn players Dileno Baldin and Francesco Meucci garner admiration for the brilliance and pulchritude—not always qualities present in performances featuring period instruments—of their playing. The strings also deliver first-rate accounts of their parts, avoiding the acidic sounds and inflexible sawing inflicted upon many performances. In a garden of fruits as sweet as those cultivated on these discs, the work of Minassi and Il Pomo d’Oro is indeed a gilded apple of special savoriness.

In the title rôle, that of the Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis, Spanish tenor Juan Sancho contends with exacting music composed by Vinci for Giovanni Battista Pinacci, the Florentine tenor who created parts in Ezio and Sosarme, re di Media for Händel in London and sang Artabano in the 1731 revival of Vinci’s Artaserse. Continuing the legacy of Gasparini’s Il Bajazet and Händel’s Tamerlano, Catone in Utica was notable in the Eighteenth Century for depicting the suicide of a lead character, facilitating display of the acting skills for which Pinacci was renowned, not least in London, where his interpretation of Händel’s Bajazet was lauded by both the composer and his public. In Act One of Catone in Utica, Sancho battles manfully with the trumpet obbligato in the aria 'Con sì bel nome in fronte,’ the fine calibre of his singing jeopardized only by a final cadenza that takes him uncomfortably high. Competing with the horns in 'Si sgomenti alle sue pene il pensier di donna imbelle,' the tenor’s articulation of the unconventional vocal line occasionally makes the aria sound like a refugee from Vinci’s beloved Neapolitan opera buffa, but he dispatches the coloratura with absolute confidence. The contrapuntal writing in Catone’s Act Two aria 'Va', ritorna al tuo tiranno, servi pur al tuo sovrano,' the melodic line again punctuated with outbursts of frenzied coloratura, draws from Sancho singing of incredible technical acumen, something also devoted to his stimulating performance of the aria agitata 'Dovea svenarti allora che apristi al dì le ciglia,' its music so reminiscent of Vivaldi. Catone has no arias in Act Three, but he here has the challenge of the emotionally-charged accompagnati with which Vinci limned the character’s suicide. In Sancho’s performance, Catone takes leave of a life that has become hateful to him with dignity that does not preclude blinding flashes of anger. There is just enough of an edge on Sancho’s tone in the upper register to sometimes make his Catone sound more sophomoric than stoic, but the ease with which the singer executes Vinci’s most daunting feats is imposing.

Having recently been signed to a long-term recording contract by Deutsche Grammophon, still a rare relationship among the few remaining major labels and singers within his Fach, Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli here sings Cesare, the rôle created in 1728 by world-famous castrato Giovanni Carestini. More than any of the other rôles in Catone in Utica, Cesare was composed almost to order, as it were, with the goal of showcasing the astounding capabilities of Carestini’s voice. Some of the part’s bravura passages are beastly, but Fagioli tames them with singing that never deviates from the exalted standard set in his performance of the Act One aria 'Nell'ardire che il seno t'accende,' in which he makes love in music with delicate trills matched by the strings. No less captivating is his voicing of 'Chi un dolce amor condanna,' a bewitching number in the gallant style of Pergolesi. 'Soffre talor del vento i primi insulti il mare' in Act Two is a simile aria of the type frequently encountered in Baroque opera, its billowing horns and cascades of coloratura tempered by pregnant pauses that Fagioli infuses with a serenity almost as engaging as his rapid-fire coloratura. The breakneck roulades and punishing intervals of 'Se in campo armato vuoi cimentarmi' render the aria as much of an exercise for the singer as for the trumpeter and timpanist, but this singer is never outshone by his orchestral colleagues. With an arching violin obbligato that brings to mind the ravishing ‘Sovvente il sole’ from Vivaldi’s Andromeda liberata, Cesare’s 'Quell'amor che poco accende' in Act Three is as stunningly beautiful as any aria composed in the Eighteenth Century, and Fagioli’s performance of it is worthy of the music, the upper register glowing. As recorded here, his mezza voce has a ‘spin’ as alluring as those of Zinka Milanov and Michel Sénéchal.

Marzia, Catone’s fiery-spirited daughter, was sung in the première of Catone in Utica by the soprano castrato Farfallino (né Giacinto Fontana), the ‘little butterfly’ of Roman Baroque opera. When Catone in Utica was produced in Naples in 1732, the celebrated Faustina Bordoni assumed Marzia’s identity. Despite his gender, it is intriguing to conjecture whether the portrayal of Marzia in this performance by Romanian countertenor Valer Sabadus is more like Farfallino’s or Bordoni’s. Sabadus’s unique, silvery timbre causes Marzia to sound more petulant than she might if sung by a warmer, more conventionally feminine voice, but he sings the music so capably that the acerbic shadow cast by his vocalism seems justified by the character’s dramatic predicament. The necessity of negotiating the difficult vocal line of the Act One aria 'Non ti minaccio sdegno, non ti prometto amor' causes the words to be lost, and the aria’s close is undermined by a strange cadenza that leads nowhere, but the voice shimmers. The aria 'È follia se nascondete, fidi amanti, il vostro foco' receives from Sabadus a beguiling performance, and the gossamer strains of 'In che t'offende se l’alma spera' in Act Two are eloquently elucidated. The accompaniment of 'So che godendo vai del duol che mi tormenta' sounds as though borrowed from Vivaldi’s mandolin concerti, and Sabadus shapes the vocal line with poetic sensitivity. In Act Three, the aria 'Confusa, smarrita, spiegarti vorrei che fosti' is nobly sung, and the powerful accompagnato ‘Pur veggo alfine un raggio’ in the scene at the ancient aqueduct—deemed an inappropriate setting for evocation of the glories of Imperial Rome by Vinci’s audience—lures from Sabadus polished but dynamic vocalism. He soars in Marzia’s lines in the quartetto with Cesare, Catone, and Emilia, 'Deh! in vita ti serba,' interacting with his colleagues with unforced synergy. Throughout his performance, a few of Sabadus’s highest notes are slightly uncomfortable, and notes at the bottom end of resolved cadences tend to disappear. Nonetheless, there is no condescension in the artfully-conveyed femininity of his Marzia: he sings the music without artifice and trusts Metastasio and Vinci to communicate the character’s gender identity to the listener.

It was to Bolognese castrato Giovanni Battista Minelli, a widely-lauded singer who created rôles for virtually every Italian composer of importance in the first three decades of the Eighteenth Century, that Vinci entrusted the part of Arbace. It was recorded by his contemporary Giambattista Mancini that Minelli possessed a two-octave contralto voice of uncommon distinction, distinguished by near-perfect trills and mordents. One might think that Mancini was describing Max Emanuel Cencic. The Croatian-born countertenor complements the fantastic string playing in Arbace’s Act One aria 'Che legge spietata che sorte crudele' with formidable evenness of tone and tasteful ornamentation. Then, he responds to the whirling string figurations in 'È in ogni core diverso amore' with singing of sparkling sensuality. 'So che pietà non hai, e pur ti deggio amar' in Act Two is phrased with tremendous imagination. It is with 'Che sia la gelosia un gielo in mezzo al foco' that Arbace brings down the curtain on the second act, and it is difficult to imagine Minelli, for all his gifts, singing the aria more compellingly than Cencic. The grandeur of all that has come before notwithstanding, it is the Act Three aria 'Combattuta da tante vicende' that is the pinnacle of Cencic’s performance. He rockets through the fiendish coloratura with calm aplomb, but it is the sheer loveliness of his voice that refuses to be forgotten. Cencic’s presence on disc in general is exemplary, but his Arbace in this recording of Catone in Utica is the work of an artist with few peers in any Fach.

Christened Emilia by Metastasio and Vinci rather than the Cornelia familiar from Haym’s and Händel’s—and, by extension, Bussani’s and Sartorio’s—Giulio Cesare in Egitto, the rôle of Pompey’s widow was taken in the first performance of Catone in Utica by Giovanni Ossi, a star pupil of Gasparini. The Emilia of California-bred countertenor Vince Yi is a study in contrasts. At first, Yi's voice, though attractive and ably-produced, seems debilitatingly pale in comparison with Fagioli's, Sabadus's, and especially Cencic's instruments, lacking the weight of tone to meaningfully evince the grieving Emilia’s vengeful bloodlust, yet Yi's tones soon reveal a haunting ambiguity. In the Act One accompagnato ‘Io con quest’occhi, io vidi splender l’infame acciaro,’ the young singer is at once poised and perfervid, and the aria 'O nel sen di qualche stella' is voiced with authority despite the relative shallowness of the timbre. Yi's traversal of 'Un certo non so che veggo negli occhi tuoi' is tranquil but not complacent, his wonderful upper register heard to optimal advantage. The first of Emilia's arias in Act Two, 'Per te spero e per te solo mi lusingo e mi consolo,' is an unusual number that exploits the dramatic possibilities of accelerandi, and Yi tellingly explores the expressive possibilities of music and text. His voicing of 'Se sciogliere non vuoi dalle catene il cor' is no less fetching. Yi proves a model to his colleagues in the alternation of private and public sentiments: asides are handled with atypical credibility in this performance by all of the singers. Vinci’s Emilia is not as endearing and approachable a character as Händel's Cornelia, but Yi's subtle, unfailingly appealing singing invests her with a pragmatic determination that sighs when other, less insightful singers' portrayals might shout.

Tyrolean tenor Martin Mitterrutzner portrays Fulvio, created by Filippo Giorgi, Porpora’s preferred Varo in his setting of Metastasio’s Ezio, with dramatic vigor and vocal freshness. From the opening phrase of Fulvio’s Act One aria 'Piangendo ancora rinascer suole la bella aurora,' Mitterrutzner wields strikingly handsome tone, easy command of broad tessitura, and crisp trills. The diaphanous G-minor melodic line of 'Piangendo ancora' is caressed by the tenor's plangent tone, his elegant phrasing seconded by Minasi's aristocratic management of the minuet rhythm. The Act Two aria 'Nascesti alle pene, mio povero core' is voiced engrossingly. 'La fronda, che circonda a' vincitori il crine,' Fulvio's aria in Act Three is a bravura tour de force, and Mitterrutzner excels in it. The solid technical foundation upon which his well-integrated vocal registers are laid is heartening in a young singer, and the anticipation of future marvels—his Idomeneo is destined to be legendary—encouraged by this performance is thrilling.

In an age in which enterprising artists and ensembles have before them means of rediscovering and exploring neglected repertory that could hardly have been imagined just a generation ago, it is frustrating to note the frequency with which opera companies that might, even with relatively modest resources, mount unforgettable productions of rejuvenated operas like Leonardo Vinci's Catone in Utica forgo opportunities for innovation in order to put on tired, often badly-sung performances of Rigoletto, Carmen, and La bohème. These scores have of course earned their places in international repertory, but, more than many of their Twenty-First-Century admirers might suspect, Verdi, Bizet, and Puccini respected and honored the achievements of their operatic forebears. To suggest that Rigoletto, Carmen, and La bohème would have been impossible without Catone in Utica is to stretch the point, but this phenomenal recording of the opera proves that Vinci’s music is by no means undeserving of performance alongside the works of the best of his contemporaries. With Catone in Utica joining acclaimed recordings of Händel’s Alessandro and Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia, the commitment of DECCA and Parnassus Arts Productions to retrieving wonderful music from the shadows of history is thriving. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has achieved miracles for Catone.