Catone in Utica
Catone in Utica (1728) was written in Rome for four stars: the tenor Panacci (Cato) and the three castratos Carestini, Farfallino and Minelli. Though this all-male casting was dictated by a 1588 Papal decree, the decision to pit a lead tenor against castratos was novel. Librettist Metastasio, then at the start of his career, cleverly used a story about Cato’s defiance of Caesar, and Caesar’s love of Cato’s daughter, to give composer Leonardo Vinci rich opportunities for heroic show.
This new recording showcases today’s top countertenors: Franco Fagioli (Caesar), Valer Sabadus (Marzia, Cato’s daughter) and Max Emanuel Cencic (Arbace, Caesar’s rival). With Vinci’s score effectively setting performers in competition with each other through alternating arias, director Riccardo Minaso heats up this sense of rivalry – the variations get wilder, the yearning more palpable. All three countertenors are virtuosos, but Fagioli, fittingly for Caesar, takes the laurels. His embellishments, besides astonishing the ear, deepen his characterisation – for instance bringing out the latent narcissism of ‘Quell’amor che poco accende’. The band contributes enormously throughout, its brash exuberance alternating with continuo realisations as delicate as they are original.
Although dramatically convincing, tenor Juan Sancho as Cato strains some top notes and belabours the more fiendish diminutions. Indeed, clocking in at almost four hours, Catone in Utica requires stamina all round. Patience is however rewarded by this largely superb premiere recording. Berta Joncus