Yes, it's a pasticcio. No, the music isn't actually by Handel. But is it any good? You bet.
Metastasio's original libretto as used by Leonardo Vinci for his 1728 Catone in Utica had Cato dying onstage, but he later modified this for Leonardo Leo's staging such that it was announced rather than shown (Vivaldi was later to completely take the knife to Metastasio and had Cato reconciling with Caesar in his Catone in Utica). It appears that Metastasio's altered libretto as employed by Leo provided the basis for this arrangement by Handel presented in 1732. The notes discuss evidence that the selection of arias (9 from Leonardo Leo, 6 from Johann Adolf Hasse, 4 from Nicola Porpora, 3 from Antonio Vivaldi and 1 from Vinci) was undertaken by the singers themselves, who included Senesino and Anna Maria Strada del Pò, coming from their repertoires. Since this opera opened the season in that year, the booklet suggests that this pasticcio, and perhaps the form in general. had the function of showcasing the season's forthcoming talent to the public. It would certainly have been lucrative for Handel at any rate - the notes tell us that composers would have been paid as much for staging a pasticcio as for one of their own newly composed works, and we are perhaps fortunate that early 18th century composers didn't become lazy and just coin it in with someone else's music. Handel was sensitive to the low tolerance of London audiences for lengthy recitative, and we get a thoroughly enjoyable work packed with toe-tapping arias.
The booklet photographs suggest that this was recorded before a live audience (sung rather than 'staged'), or perhaps there were some extra closed sessions for recording. If it was indeed live you really wouldn't know it, with polished performances by all and warm, balanced, reverberant sound. It's an outstanding cast - contralto Sonia Prina as Catone, baritone Riccardo Novaro as Cesare (catch him in Porpora's "Non parventa del mar le procelle"), the utterly incomparable soprano Roberta Invernizzi as Pompey's window Emilia (have a listen to her in Porpora's - that man again - "Priva del caro sposo"), mezzo Kristina Hammarström as Arbace, Prince of Numidia and last but by no means least soprano Lucia Cirillo as Marzia, Arbace's daughter.
The booklet has three pages of good notes, a two page synopsis and full libretto with English translation.
This recording is well worth a listen, indeed I'd call it enjoyable, but you have to start by recognising what "Catone (Cat-o-ne)" is, and what it isn't. It says on the tin "George Frideric Handel: Catone", as if this is a long-lost Handel opera we need to hear. Serious misrepresentation. "Catone" is an entertainment Handel put together by cutting-and-pasting from other composers' operas to flesh out his 1732 London season. It contains not a note of his own music – except possibly in the recitatives.
Cut-and-paste operas – "pasticcios" – were standard practice in the 18th century opera house. For Handel "Catone" meant less work – he had two of his own operas, "Sosarme" and "Orlando" to produce that season – but it also pleased his singers, who got a chance (in some cases) to sing again arias they already knew – and it offered his sophisticated audience the chance to hear music in the latest continental styles. What Handel did was to take an opera by Leonardo Leo, keep those arias that happened to suit the voices in his own company, and insert other arias from fashionable composers – Hasse, Porpora, Leonardo Vinci (no, not that one) and Vivaldi. So what we get in "Catone" – and what's interesting about it – is a catwalk of European operatic style in 1732. Can you tell one style from another? – that's the question for the listener. I think I can, at least in the sense that (very obviously) none of it's by Handel. But, speaking positively, I can spot Vivaldi (he stands out like a lighthouse) and I think I can tell Hasse (more early-classical than Handel) and Porpora (intensely decorative – very difficult to sing). Leonardo Leo's music sounds generalised-Baroque. We can be glad Handel ditched two thirds of Leo's original opera.
Some potential interest here then, but only good singing can take it from the hands of geeks like me. I'm glad to say that pretty good singing is on offer. Sonia Prina is the stand-out voice, well filling the shoes of the famous castrato Senesino as the hero Catone with her powerful, stylish, expressive, and accurate tones. She alone is well worth the price of admission. The heroine – Marzia – was taken by Anna Strada, one of Handel's great sopranos; her stand-in here is Lucia Cirillo, who is a competent rather than great operatic soprano (she's sung Rossini at Glyndebourne), but Cirillo has worked hard and mostly manages well - it's just a shame that she can't give the massive concluding aria the welly which we can suppose Strada gave it. The role of Cesare – somewhere between villain and lover – Handel gave to his star bass Antonio Montanagna. Riccardo Novaro is the wrong voice-type for the part. He's definitely a baritone – Handel would probably have called him a tenor: I can imagine him as Leporello. But that's the worst I can say. Novaro too has clearly worked hard and mastered his brief – he sings cleanly, accurately and stylishly, making sense of a contradictory character.
For obvious reasons Roberta Invernizzi and Kristina Hammarstrom get the next billing on the lid after Prina, but (fortunately) they take the secondary roles. Hammarstom is the second "man", the failed lover Arbace (always a pants role –Handel gave it to the contralto Francesca Bertolli). Hammarstrom sings the recits with dramatic purpose, and arias by Hasse expressively, but she finds Porpora a struggle – which, to be fair, is more-or-less true of the entire cast. You really need Julia Lezhneva to make sense of Porpora. What I say about Hammarstrom I'd also say of Invernizzi, save that her voice – which I have never much cared for – is getting very loose these days.
Carlo Ipata and his Pisa-based group deserve congratulation, and their energetic but unhysterical performance is well captured by the recording engineer Moritz Bergfeld, who manages to make the well-balanced but tiny orchestra sound like a real opera band in a theatre: you can, for example, only hear the harpsichord and lute during the recits, because the band drowns them during the arias, just as happens in the theatre. The voices are also well recorded in a convincing relationship with the band and each other. It's a really pleasant change from the hooting and strumming prevalent in recent Handel opera sets.
In 2014 Carlo Ipata made a recording of Gasparini's "Il Bajazet" [see my review], thus giving Handelians the possibility of hearing a work which was the genesis of Handel's own "Tamerlano". The performance was only adequate, but then Gasparini wasn't much of a composer. This new offering of a Handelian by-way shows that Ipata is rapidly becoming a baroque stylist to rival Laurence Cummings – and he's gathered funding and singers along the way. I like "Catone" – it's an entertainment devised by Handel, and is therefore entertaining – but now I'd like even better to hear a real Handel opera from Ipata. There's plenty that need good recordings.