126. Catone in Utica (Vinci)

  • Opera seria in 3 acts
  • Composer: Leonardo Vinci
  • Libretto: Pietro Metastasio
  • First performed: Teatro Alibert, Rome, 19 January 1728

A Roman triumph!  Decca’s 2015 recording (conductor Riccardo Minasi, with Il Pomo d’Oro) of this Caesarian opera seria has some of the most extraordinary singing I’ve ever heard.  Veni, audivi, Vinci, one might say.

Catone in Utica was Leonardo Vinci’s (no relation) 28th opera, with a text by Metastasio, yet to become the most frequently set librettist in history, based on Plutarch and Addison’s play Cato (a favourite of the American Revolutionaries).

Composed for Rome, it featured an all-male cast: four castrati (two singing female roles) and two tenors.  (Pope Sixtus V, in 1588, had banned women from appearing onstage in Rome and the Papal States, a rule not overturned until the 19th century.)

The opera relates the death of Cato the Younger, Stoic leader of the conservative Optimates faction of senators, in 46 BC, resisting his political enemy Julius Caesar to the last.

After Caesar defeated the Senatorial army under Pompey at Pharsalus (48 BC), Cato and Metellus Scipio withdrew to the province of Africa (modern Tunisia).  Caesar crushed Scipio’s army, then marched on Cato’s stronghold of Utica.  In the opera, unlike history, Caesar meets Cato twice, pressing for peace.  Cato’s daughter Marzia also loves Caesar, although her father has promised her to his ally Arbace, king of Numidia.  Cato rejects Caesar, and commits suicide by pulling out his entrails.

Watch the 2015 Versailles production (subtitles in French)

The opera was Metastasio’s first libretto for Rome; Metastasio, Charles Burney wrote, “chose the subject purposely to please the Romans, supposing that he should gain both applause and gratitude by displaying the virtue of one of their own heroes”.  The Romans weren’t pleased, in the event; they objected to a scene in an aqueduct (undignified!), and to Cato dying onstage.

Highlights from CATONE IN UTICA (18 of them!)

As Cesare, the Argentian counter-tenor Franco Fagioli is phenomenal.  He displays his jaw-dropping coloratura and three-octave range in the magnificent storm aria “Soffre talor dal vento”; and declares war on Cato in the thrilling “Se in campo armato”.  “Quell’amor che poco accende” is sublimely beautiful, with a slow, unfolding melody.  “Chi un dolce amor” in the first act is suave and sweet, showing Caesar as lover.  He is at once charming and ambitious, ruthless and charismatic.

Croatian counter-tenor Max Emanuel Cenčić (another superstar) sings the secondo uomo role of Arbace, but gets some of the loveliest, gentlest arias: “Che legge spietata” and “E in ogni core” (I), “So chè pieta non hai” and “Che sia la gelosia” (II).  “Combattuta da tante vicende”, in the third act, demonstrates his virtuosity.

Catone (tenor Juan Sancho) is the embodiment of Republican virtue: “inflexible, imperturbable, and altogether steadfast,” in Plutarch’s words, “inexorable once angered”.  His majestic “Con si bel nome in fronte”, the opera’s first aria, expresses his pride in Rome, with martial trumpets and a galloping rhythm.  While morally upright, he is stubborn and severe; he upbraids Pompey’s widow Emilia for her grief in the furious “Si sgomenti alle pene”, and explodes in a paroxysm of rage in “Dovea svenarti allora”, trying to kill Marzia for her treachery in loving Caesar; the strings flash like lightning and stab like accusing fingers.

For the rest, Emilia (Vince Yi)’s “O nel sen di qualche stella” is a tune worthy of Mozart; Marzia (Valer Sabadus)’s “In che t’offende” is exquisite; and Fulvio (Martin Mitterrutzner)’s “La fronda, che circonda” is terrifically vigorous.  The thrilling Sinfonia, with its punchy opening and forward propulsion, looks forward to Spontini, while the quartet in the final act ranks with the best.

Vinci seems to have been a great composer, his career cut short by murder.  He was, Kaminski writes, one of the masters of Neapolitan opera, praised by his contemporaries for the vigour and elegance of his style.  Bauman notes that Vinci’s “limpid and pliant melodic style is one of the first to merit the term ‘galant’, a manner that Tartini was to define as a happy combination of ‘chiarezza, vaghezza e buona modulazione‘ (clarity, charm, and good modulation)”.

Burney called him the “Lully of Italy”; while the philosopher Rousseau (Lettre sur la Musique Françoise, 1753) thought that Vinci, with Corelli, Bononcini, and Pergolesi, was one of the first to make music, rather than simply harmony and sounds.  His final opera, Artaserse (1730), is considered his masterpiece; De Rochemont (Réflexions sur l’Opéra, 1755) even thought it “the most beautiful opera of Italy”.

Born in Calabria, 1690, Vinci studied at a Neapolitan conservatory, then composed a string of opere buffe, beginning with Lo cecato fauzo (1719).  Publio Cornelio Scipione (1722) was the first of his more than 20 opera seria, performed in Naples, Rome, Venice, and Parma; in the 1725-26 carnival, he had three separate operas performed in as many cities.  He was also the first to set many of Metastasio’s early works, including Siroe rè di Persia (1726), Alessandro nell’Indie (1729), Semiramide riconosciuta (1729), and Artaserse.  (He was a sworn enemy of Porpora, and apparently tried to sabotage his Mitridate, 1730.) As maestro di cappella of his former Neapolitan conservatory, his pupils included Pergolesi.  Vinci died in 1730, when a jealous husband poisoned his hot chocolate.


Works consulted

  • Thomas Bauman, “The Eighteenth Century: Serious Opera”, The Oxford History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker, 1994
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, 2003
  • Kurt Markström, essay accompanying Decca CD
  • Kurt Sven Markstrom, The Operas of Leonardo Vinci, Napoletano,
  • John Warrack & Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1997)

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