OK, I'm kidding just a bit. The reason for the title is that the first act of Vivaldi's "Catone in Utica" has been lost. However, for this recording, the first act was reconstructed by rather untraditional means, which allows us to hear a full three-act opera.
Catone in Utica was the first opera that Metastasio wrote for the Roman public and premiered set to music by Leonardo Vinci in 1728; it was received with mixed feelings. Roman critics did not take lightly to a fantastical plot that included the mortally wounded Cato slowly dying across the last two scenes of the opera (sounds like Verdi's "Un Ballo in maschera" was pre-empted by over a century!). Audiences and citics also objected to the secret pathway scene being played in a disused sewer. Being sensitive to critical response, Metastasio altered the second half of his third act. In the second version, first set by Leonardo Leo for Venice in 1729, then by Hasse in 1731, also for Venice. Cato's death is simply reported, and all that remains of the acquedotti antichi of the secret pathway scene is the entrance, to which a fountain of Isis and its surrounding trees create a visual diversion. Metastasio clearly regarded both versions of this drama as authentic, although most composers preferred the revision. Vivaldi was thus not the first to set this libretto to music, and he faced some stiff competition from Neapolitan composers a la mode in doing so. On the other hand, even though at the height of his career, between late 1729 and early 1737, and travelling widely, he is likely to have heard the two versions in Venice or at least to have read the scores, and, in 1729 he was involved in the revival of Vinci's version of the opera in Florence. So he would have been well aware of the quality of the competition as well as with the libretto, which, as we will see later, he disliked (probably intensely).
VIVALDI'S FINAL YEARS
Vivaldi received an invitation to visit Vienna a long time before he actually travelled there. The invitation, cited in a letter of 1737, occurred during the time when Vivaldi's fame was at its peak and Vivaldi received commissions from European nobility and royalty. In 1728, Vivaldi met emperor Charles VI while he was visiting Trieste to oversee the construction of a new port. Charles admired the music of the Red Priest so much that he is said to have spoken more with the composer during their one meeting than he spoke to his ministers in over two years. He gave Vivaldi the title of knight, a gold medal and an invitation to Vienna.
However, by the time Catone in Utica (RV 705) was composed in 1737 and premiered as the last opera in Vivaldi's highly successful collaboration with Verona's Filarmonico Vivaldi hadn't made the trip to Vienna yet. Perhaps he should have, for this was to be Vivaldi's last opera season, as things were on the brink of a rapid descent of his fortunes. Even though Vivaldi had had problems with the governors of the Pieta on several occasions before, his re-appointment as maestro di capella in 1738 did not go through, probably due to his many absences. He still wrote music for the Pieta, but their close relationship suffered a final breach that was never healed as Vivaldi continued his travels. Catone was to prove the last of his operas but three, and the last one to enjoy a success.
In 1737 Vivaldi had arranged productions of his operas in Ferrara for the years 1737-39, but a scandal ensued that thwarted these plans. There were wrangles over a singer's contract and the choice of operas, and an unseemly attempt by Vivaldi to squeeze his collaborators for money. As result, Vivaldi suffered a setback in in 1738, when Cardinal Tomaso Ruffo, Archbishop of Ferrara forbade him to enter the city due to an ostensible immoral relationship with his favorite prima donna Anna Giro, as well as his refusal to say mass.
Charles De Brosses, a highly erudite French nobleman who met Vivaldi in autumn 1739, found his stock low with the Venetian public as well. That may be one reason why Vivaldi was finally persuaded to undertake his last journey in 1740 (the ground for which may have been prepared by his wife in all but a church ceremony, Anna Girò's visits to Graz in 1739 and 1740). It seems very likely that Catone in Utica was in his suitcase, given the Emperor's predilection for Metastasio (though Vivaldi may have been sufficiently politic to have restored some of the original Metastasian libretto for the occasion).
Operas were certainly planned for performance by Vivaldi upon arrival in Austria, but then Emperor Charles VI had the bad taste to go and die in October 1740, which resulted in the closure of all Viennese theatres for the duration of the following carnival. Vivaldi, perhaps too ill or too poor to return to Venice, lingered on in the city, desperately trying to peddle his concerti to raise some cash. On 27 or 28 July he died in a house owned by the widow of a Viennese saddler named Waller and was given a pauper's burial on the latter day at the Hospital Burial Ground (Spettaler Gottesacker), confirming a statement in a contemporary Venetian commonplace book (Commemoriali Gradenigo) which notes that Vivaldi, who had once earned 50,000 ducats (presumably annually, which back then would have been close to the sum Beckham was paid in Los Angeles), died in poverty through his prodigality. It certainly was a long fall from the success of Catone in Utica in Verona only 4 years before.
CATONE IN UTICA
The creation of Catone in Utica was further complicated by the fact that Vivaldi was none too thrilled with Mestastasio as a librettist. Venerated in Vienna, new Metastasio librettos were always first performed before the Emperor with the music composed by Caldara. Then permission was graciously granted to only a Neapolitan composer to present Metastasio's poetic masterpieces in Italy. Unusually, the honor to premiere L'Olimpiade in Venice in 1743 (the first and last time this honor did not befall Naples), perhaps as a result of his earlier meeting with the Emperor. Though probably flattered by this honor, Vivaldi was less thrilled with what he had to work with. He extensively modified the original libretto for his own version of L'Olimpiade, and 3 years later, when asked to "spice up" Hasse's Demetrio and Alessandro, both of which had libretto's by Metastasio, he re-wrote and re-composed both operas to such a degree, that they probably contained as much by the original author and composer as a McDonald's hamburger contains USDA certified prime beef.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, he followed his earlier pattern when composing Catone. He shortened the libretto (actually not a bad idea when it comes to baroque operas) and he completely altered the ending to make it more "cheerful" without any input from Metastasio.
When Vivaldi's manuscripts were rediscovered in 1926 - having been out of sight since 1741 - only two acts of Catone in Utica were found. Thus the reason for my tongue-in-cheek title for this review is the fact that Act I of Catone is missing from the manuscript now found in the Biblioteca nazionale universitaria di Torino. This may in fact not be a case of a "lost" masterpiece, but due to the fact that composing the first act was unloaded by Vivaldi on another, unknown, composer based on a letter he wrote to Marquis Bentivoglio in 1737, the year the opera premiered. This would not be surprising, because Vivaldi compiled quite a number of "pastiche" operas as his career took off, a practice not unusual at the time. Handel did it, and so did Bach (albeit Bach mostly by parodying his own earlier works). On the other hand, musicologists have also proposed an alternative theory, in which Vivaldi DID write the first act as well as the rest of the opera based on other evidence, including the recovery of a "lost" aria from the opera inserted into Rosmira of 1738. No wonder they wore wigs back then, because trying to figure out the real story is enough to tear your hair out.
Regardless of what happened back in 1737, Vivaldi paid particular attention to the quality of the music, in which he worked on a synthesis of his own mature style with Neapolitan musical fashions. Furthermore, Vivaldi "borrowed" his own music for other occasions as often as Handel and Bach did. Yet in Catone, these borrowings are far fewer than usual for Vivaldi at this stage; only 5 out of the 18 arias had been used in previous Vivaldi operas (and if this is far fewer than normal for Vivaldi, one wonders why he didn't start a Payday Aria Loan chain - he would have made a killing).
Vivaldi placed even more emphasis on orchestral color in Catone than he was wont to do in his operas. It is Vivaldi's use of the orchestra in his operas which makes them outstanding. Nobody will debate that Handel's most famous operas, such as Giulio Cesare, Ariodante or Orlando, are masterpieces not just because of Handel's music but also due to his sense of dramatic pacing when using - by the standards of the time - excellent librettos. Yet one area where Handel is open to some criticism is his orchestral scoring. All too many of his arias are written in three parts only, with the violins and oboes playing one part unisono and the violas, celli and basses the second part unisono while accompanying the single part of a singer. They are in fact, beefed-up trio sonatas based on what Corelli did with his Op. 6 concerti grossi, which can be played both as simple trio sonatas or as concerti grossi with a concertino. The fact that one doesn't notice how often Handel uses this economical style of composing is a tribute to his ability to write beautiful vocal lines with beautiful melodies and an inventive and dynamic two-part accompaniment.
None of Vivaldi's operas can live up dramatically to Handel at his best as coherent musical dramas. Where Vivaldi surpasses Handel, however, is in the luscious scoring of his arias. Most of them use a 4-part string orchestra to accompany the singer, along with the obligatory (and usually doubling the violins) pair of oboes, trumpets and horns. Based on records from 1737 preserved in Ferrara this was the instrumentation of Catone, which was made even more impressive by having a core string orchestra of 22 musicians with an unknown number extra assistants hired for the performance. These were orchestral forces that Handel rarely could muster in his operas due to the cost involved. Handel's orchestration grew in sophistication in his oratorios, but there, of course, he did not need to worry about costumes, sets, rent and a whole host of other expenses.
I may be branded a musical heretic by saying this, but Vivaldi's operas are best listened to by skipping the recitatives (though Vivaldi was unusually thorough in composing these) and treating the arias as movements from his violin concerti. This is no particular insult to Vivaldi, since just about every composer of Italian operas except for Monteverdi and Handel used lousy librettos which are so cliché as to be almost irrelevant. This is a fact which did not change substantially until Mozart collaborated with Da Ponte. Even Mozart's Idomeneo is an epic libretto disaster (with music that isn't much better than the libretto), so we should not judge Vivaldi and other composers too harshly and just enjoy their music. They were in fact just 300 years or so ahead of Hollywood, where Batman "resets," as well as Star Wars, Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien and other film sequels hedge investor bets against financial ruin while churning out one more bad, nonsensical and predictable plot twist after another.
The reconstruction of Act I was undertaken by Alessandro Ciccolini, apparently after much reflection whether just record the last two acts or not. Of course, for purposes of performance, an opera missing an entire act isn't exactly ideal. Being a Vivaldi expert has its benefits, since Ciccolini writes that he could draw on many examples of how Vivaldi borrowed not just entire arias from himself, but how he transferred musical passages from concerti to opera arias and vice versa. So instead of just using arias from other Vivaldi operas that matched the proper level of emotion in the libretto, he decided to compose 5 new "Vivaldi" arias (musical purists feel free to curse and swear loudly at
this point). Oh, by the way, Ciccolini also composed new "Vivaldi" recitatives for act I, but that's not such a big deal, really.
In order not to complicate things too much, I will summarize the reconstruction of Act I as it is done in the accompanying liner booklet.
The overture was snatched from L'Olimpiade (RV 725)
Aria 1: "Con si bel nome in fronte" was composed using and fiddling with the first 8 bars of Bassoon Concerto RV 493
Aria 2: "E follia se nascondete" was taken from Rosmira (RV 731)
Aria 3: "Vaga sei di sdegni tuoi" was composed using material from the Violin Concertos "Il sospetto" (RV 199) and (248).
Aria 4: "L'Ira mia bella sdegnata" is a reworked version of "La sul margine del Rio" from Atenaide (RV 702)
Aria 5: "O nel sen di qualche stella" is based on excerpts from Bassoon Concerto RV 488
Aria 6: "Apri le luci, e mira" was composed using reworked parts of the aria " Dolce fiamma" from La fida ninfa (RV 714)
Aria 7: "Che legge spietata" composed on the basis of excerpts from Violin Concerto RV 248
What can one say about this "new" Vivaldi? Sig. Ciccolini should have mentioned that he used parts of the 1st movement of the overture as well as the bassoon concerto. To me, "Con si bel nome in fronte" sounds a bit too Neapolitan in the vocal line, but otherwise it might have found approval from Han van Meegeren. "E follia se nascondete" does not sound like Vivaldi at his best, and the abrupt tempo slow-downs don't particularly help the quality of this Vivaldi pastiche. "Vaga sei di sdegni tuoi" lends some reason to Tartini's disdainful remark that Vivaldo wrote his operas for the neck of a violin and not a singer. It is executed perfectly in spite of its difficulties, but doesn't sound like particularly exceptional Vivaldi. If you're going to fake him, at least make it more exciting. "L'Ira mia bella sdegnata" sounds pretty good, but that is probably because most of it was written by Vivaldi originally. "O nel sen di qualche stella" opens with a somewhat incongruous fugato starting in the basses, but actually turns out to be a fine "Vivaldian" aria after that, especially with the way Ann Hallenberg sings it. It is the best of Sig. Ciccolini's work on this opera along with "Che legge spietata". "Apri le luci, e mira" is again rather unproblematic, since it was mostly written by Vivaldi himself. "Che legge spietata" actually also works pretty well for a nuts and bolts reconstruction. Emoke Barath's gorgeous singing helps a great deal too. Ultimately, though, Mr. Ciccolini gets a bit carried away by the Neapolitan style which he cross breeds into his neo-Vivaldian arias. As one listens on and arrives at the "real" Vivaldi in acts II and III in the recording, this becomes much more apparent.
From Act II we get to the beef. The non plus ultra masterpiece of the entire opera - and one of Vivaldi's most beautiful pieces ever - is the slow aria "Se mai senti spirarti sul volto lieve." Roberta Mamelli's lovely voice accompanied by muted violins and pizzicato in the basses is just magical, and at over 8 minutes allows one to settle into this gorgeous music, let it envelop and carry one away. "Degl'Elisi dall soggiorno" is another memorable aria with wide leaps for the soloist, well-jumped by Romina Basso. The following "Se in campo armato" is your typical 18th century "let's have a fun little war - the peasants need some culling" type of aria with the obligatory two trumpets. It too is beautifully sung and has a lovely, if short, B section. The act ends with one of those nice "tempest" arias, which Vivaldi was able to write so well - "Come invano il mare irato." Vivaldian tempest arias are turbulent for the singer too, but Ann Hallenberg executes all vocal fireworks fantastically.
In Act III we start off with a darkly dramatic aria, in which Ms. Prina's voice is tested in its low tessitura. She passes with flying colors. In this act, the aria da caccia with its two horns "Nella Foresta" sticks out in particular. The two horn players do a bang-up job playing their natural horns; they sound rough and gritty in the forte signals, but can also play with a lovely, smooth tone in dynamics from piano to forte. Ann Hallenberg's interpretation of the aria is superb. Before we get to the final chorus, Vivaldi inserts a short duet, which one wishes was longer. It's a pity that Vivaldi didn't make greater use of duets in his operas (which Handel often did to great effect with some of his best music), as it would have provided a nice diversion, and because Vivaldi was able to write so beautifully for two instruments playing together.
The singers and the orchestra on this recording are all fabulous. I would even dare to go so far as to say that this is Il Complesso Barocco's and Alan Curtis' finest recording to date, though he has many others that would be equally worthy of the title. What I like about this recording is that Curtis has made his orchestral sound less "pretty and polished" and adopted a tad of Jean Christophe Spinosi's heavy metal baroque sound ideal, which becomes Vivaldi's music quite well.
Topi Lehtipuu is an extremely fine tenor with firm projection and an assured intonation. Too bad he has so few arias to sing.
Contralto Sonia Prina sounds a bit bombastic in Act I, but there's nothing wrong with her vocal technique, which traverses Vivaldi's roulades with ease.
Romina Basso has a lovely mezzo soprano voice with an ease of transition between passeggi that are barely discernible. She fully lives up to the standard of excellence of this cast.
The by many ardently admired Ann Hallenberg delivers to perfection in this recording. Her top is strong and brilliant and her chest voice is dark and rich. Two thumbs up for her too.
Roberta Mamelli as Cesare is a soprano with a great technique, and thrills with her ability to deliver the highly virtuosic music in the highest register to perfection. Her ability to interpret the emotions inherent in the music is a delight.
Emoke Barath has a honey-sweet sounding soprano which one can't hear often enough. She has vocal technique and range enough to probably be able to sing one of the violin concerti in the original on which the aria she sings in Act I is based. Her "stage presence" is very strong even coming from a recording and I would be hard pressed to say whether Ann Hallenberg of Emoke Barath was the finer soprano on this recording.
Alan Curtis and his Il Complesso Barocco play wonderfully throughout. As I've stated above, I'm sorely tempted to call this their best recording yet, and considering the quality of their other recordings, that ain't no small praise.
Technically this recording is a good as it gets. The balance and resonance are excellent and so intelligently mixed that one does not get that "recorded" sound feel, but rather that one is right there in the audience in the expensive seats. Well done, techs!
Another first-class recording in this series of Vivaldi's much neglected operas. In spite of what the liner notes may say about Vivaldi inserting Neapolitan elements into his mature style, I can't say I hear it. Vivaldi's style changed in a number of ways between his first opuses and this late work, but one senses that he didn't particularly like the lack of drama and affected "prettiness" of the Neapolitan style of music, though he wasn't beyond using arias written by Neapolitan composers in his pastiche operas. Handel had the same problem with the Neapolitan school, and in spite some traces of it here and there in his work, he didn't seem eager to jump on the Neapolitan bandwagon either.
But I digress. This is a highly recommendable recording with music-making of the highest order by everyone involved (well, OK, I'll put in a small caveat on that regarding Sig. Cicollini's composing in Vivaldian drag). A far beyond 5 stars recording if there ever was one.