Does anybody know if there’s a collective noun for pasticcios? Perhaps a ‘rash’ would be appropriate, as we’re having a spate of them here in London with more to come. The latest offering as part of the London Handel Festival is ‘Handel’s’ Catone, first performed at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket in 1732.
The opera in question is an adaptation of Leonardo Leo’s 1729 setting of Catone in Utica for the Teatro di San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice, now called the Teatro Malibran. Handel made a number of changes, introducing Londoners to arias by Hasse, Porpora, Vinci and even Vivaldi. If Vivaldi ever knew about this version, it must have added insult to injury that his arias were being used in an opera originally written for his home city by a non-Venetian. Vivaldi himself turned to the libretto in 1735 and produced some remarkable arias in the process.
Other changes introduced by Handel were based on casting choices. In Leo’s original, Cesare was sung by the soprano castrato Domenico Gizzi but Handel’s Cesare was the bass Antonio Montagnana. In the murky world of 18th Century London opera, Montagnana would abscond the following year to Handel’s rivals at the Opera of the Nobility. Incidentally, Leo’s 1729 version saw the Venetian debut of this castrato chappie by the name of Farinelli, who played Arbace.
The libretto, by Metastasio, spewed numerous contemporary settings, not just by the aforementioned composers but also Ferrandini, J. C. Bach, Vinci, Piccinni, Paisiello, Jommelli and Hasse. Cato in exile stands against the dictator Caesar. Inconveniently his daughter is in love with Caesar, in typical 18th Century operatic manner. Eventually Cato, to avoid defeat at the hands of Caesar, commits suicide bequeathing his hatred of the Roman dictator to his daughter. In spite of his suicide, Dante was compassionate enough to grant Cato a position of guardian in Purgatory rather than limbo, the fate of pre-Christians, though Vivaldi went one better in his version by letting Cato live through the end of the opera.
The orchestra of young or at least young-looking, players played exuberantly. The violins become a little acidic at points and the oboes occasionally intrusively clucky in a couple of arias but there was much fine playing. The violins played with remarkable bite in the ritornello to Cesare’s first aria and a well-executed crescendo in Arbace’s act 3 aria. Recitatives were taken at an overly leisurely places at times but thankfully Handel had already taken the scissors to Leo’s work so as not to bore his London audience. This did mean that the libretto left the characters suddenly changing their minds for no apparent reason, reasons which are more properly built up in Metastasio’s fuller libretto.
Concerning the singers, to start I must applaud Christopher Robson taking on the role of Catone, learning it in 48 hours to ensure the concert went ahead. He valiantly made his way through the score but it was not felicitous listening. He had volume at times but his singing was eccentric with great whoops to lower notes. Leo’s setting of ‘Dovea svenarti allora’ was not as vituperative as Vivaldi’s and although Robson was dramatically apposite, his final verses died away, just as Catone was, into the faintest of pianissimi.
In contrast and acting as a virile foil to Catone, Christopher Jacklin put in an impressive showing as Cesare, looking and sounding the part. His opening aria, ‘Non paventa del mare le procella’ displayed a great range, the demands of the vocal line taking him from low A to F above the stave, with furious fioratura. As a comparison aria with a helmsman fearlessly battling a storm at sea it left the audience breathless. If the helmsman is fearless, so too was this singer taking on the note spinning: it pushed him but overcome it he did. Dramatically the role is a bit repetitive with another storm aria but this too was well performed. Opera settecento had performed the honourable task of identifying which opera the arias had come from originally but ‘Agitato da più venti’ remains unidentified. It was a striking piece though. Jacklin had a slightly awkward opening but recovered and continued with confidence, conquering the many octave leaps throughout the piece. Although a different era, he would surely make a fine Maometto in Rossini’s Maometto II.
Two of the subsidiary roles, Arbace and Emilia were taken by Emilie Renard and Christina Gansch respectively. Renard took the trouser role with appropriate laddish swagger and sang mellifluously, with clear singing of the semiquaver/dotted quaver figuration in ‘Un raggio di speme’, There was some loss of volume at lower end of her range during the rapid passages of ‘Quando piomba improvise saetta’ but she made light work of similar passages in Vivaldi’s setting of Arbace’s ‘Vaghe luci, luci belle’. This was a delightfully fluffy little bit of Vivaldi from the largely lost opera Ipermestra which premiered in 1727. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time though, before somebody reconstructs this, if recent concerts are to go by.
Pompey’s vengeful widow Emilia gave Gansch the opportunity to display a range of emotion from the pathetic to the outraged. Her mournful aria ‘Chi mi toglie’ was a darkly shaded piece that was redolent of the opening funeral chorus from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and her breathy sighs were affecting rather than turning to caricature. ‘Sento in riva a l’altre sponde’, with its diaphanous sounding strings and reduced bass continued the plaintive tone but she was superb in her final aria ‘Vede il nocchier la sponda’, another storm at sea aria where she went hell for leather, batshit crazy through the two octave range and ending with crazed confusion. It was overacting but on a wonderful scale.
Erica Eloff returned to Opera settecento after last year’s successful Griselda, singing the role of Cato’s daughter, Emilia. Throughout she showed beautiful point and much elegant singing. Why do we not hear more of her? Her Mozart heroines would be a touching delight. If some of her trills were lost in the resonance of the church, one could be assured of her secure, crystalline voice and crisply sung ornaments, even if some of the music expressing pain, sorry or misfortune was unrelentingly jolly. She ended ‘Confusa, smarrita’ with an anguished cry and her final aria displayed formidable coloratura technique. The oddity of this aria is that this ends the opera without the usual chorus either thanking carious deities for a happy resolution or looking to the bleak desolation of day as in Handel’s Tamerlano. This was another well-presented concert from Opera settecento of an obscure 18th Century opera and we can look forward to more with Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria later this year.
The London Handel Festival will continue with a couple of other operas: the intriguingly titled Dragon of Wantley which will end with a chorus of ‘Huzza!’ according to the libretto, and another Handel pasticcio, Giove in Argo, performed by students from the Royal College of Music. Take your Spotter’s Guides with you to identify the Handel arias.
Photos: Robert Workman