''When in 2003 the 250th anniversary of the Residenz-Theater in Munich was to celebrated, it was decided to perform the same opera which was performed at the opening of the theatre in 1753: Catone in Utica by Giovanni Battista Ferrandini. That was a bold decision, as Ferrandini is not exactly a household name in our time. He isn't a completely unknown quantity, though; his lamento 'Pianto di Madonna' was once attributed to Handel. It is perhaps due to this misattribution that it was ever recorded.
That Ferrandini was elected to compose the opera for the opening of the theatre in 1753 is less surprising. At that time Ferrandini was a widely known and admired composer. During his service at the court of Elector Karl Albrecht he was a key figure in musical life. He was asked to write an opera to celebrate the coronation of Karl Albrecht as emperor Karl VII in Frankfurt in 1742.
He was also active as a voice teacher. One of his students was the tenor Anton Raaff, who sang the title role in the first performance of Mozart's Idomeneo. And he was the music teacher of Max III Joseph - son of Karl Albrecht - who became Elector in 1745, and who played the viola da gamba at a professional level. He also taught Max III Josephs sister Antonia Walpurgis who composed two operas. In 1771 Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart visited him in Padua, where he was living at the time, another indication of his high standing.
The libretto of Catone in Utica was written by Pietro Metastasio, the most prolific writer of librettos in the 18th century. It is based on historical facts. Although most of the characters are real the story is fantasy, although the libretto itself claims it as "probable". Julius Caesar succeeded in being accepted as ruler for life of the Roman empire. His only remaining opponent was the senator Cato the Younger, who was universally respected and admired because of his high personal values as well as his steadfast defendance of the Roman Republic. Cato fled to Utica, where he tried to keep the values of the Republic alive. When Caesar travels to Utica with his army to break Cato's resistance, he was willing to compromise, out of admiration for Cato. But the senator refused any compromise. In his talks to Caesar, he asked the dictator to surrender and to go to prison. This was totally unacceptable to Caesar. In the end Cato was ready to fight against Caesar. Things got complicated when he found out that his daughter Marzia had refused to marry his ally Arbace, a Numidian prince, because she was still in love with Caesar. Emilia (her real name was Cornelia, which was changed to make it more singable), the widow of Pompeius Magnus who had been killed by Caesar, developed a plan to take revenge on him. Military action was inevitable, and the army of Caesar easily broke any resistance from Utica. When Cato found out, he took his own life. Caesar learnt of Cato's death among the celebrations of his army: he faced the hatred of Marzia, who blamed him for her father's death, and in shock threw his crown of laurels to the ground.
The libretto is interesting in that it isn't black-and-white. At first Cato seems to be the hero: he is the defender of the Republic and its values against the absolute rule of a dictator. But soon it turns out that his attitude is not that different from Caesar's. Fulvio, envoy of the Roman Senate and ally of Caesar, gives Cato a letter in which the Senate asks him to give up his resistance in the interest of peace. When he discusses the letter with Fulvio, he denies the Senate's rights to ask him anything, as it has become "a debased herd of slaves" and then adds: "Rome is everywhere where honour has not yet been extinguished, where the love of freedom still exists; my faithful are Rome, Rome am I." And when he finds out that Marzia is in love with Caesar, he threatens to kill her.
Caesar, on the other hand, may be a dictator, who destroyed the Republic and its values, but he shows an eagerness to compromise, out of respect and even admiration for Cato's moral standing and his tenacity in defending his views. And in the end, when the military victory over Utica has been completed, he orders his army to exercise moderation in respect to the vanquished.
The structure of the opera is rooted in the conventions of the baroque, with a sequence of recitatives and da capo arias. The difference with most baroque operas is that Ferrandini has written down with great precision ornaments, appoggiaturas and dynamics. It isn't quite clear from the booklet essay by Christoph Hammer what is left to the interpreters, for instance in regard to the cadences which are sung at the end of the arias. The vocal scoring is noticeable: as in most baroque operas the high voices are dominant, but here the title role is given to a tenor, which was rather rare in baroque operas, and became much more common in the second half of the 18th century.
This is a recording of a live performance, with all the related merits and demerits. One the one hand there is a very lively interaction between the protagonists, which is much harder to realise in studio recordings. On the other hand there are moments when there is no singing and playing, and one only hears stage noises which suggest something dramatic happening - what exactly is happening is left to the listener's imagination. We get at least some help from the booklet, which contains some pictures from the staging and short synopses of the action at the start of every scene.
Another major disadvantage is that this production has fallen victim to the habit of cutting parts of pre-classical operas. Some arias have been cut, recitatives have been shortened, and in some cases parts of the recitatives are spoken during the orchestral introduction of the following aria. I am not convinced that today's audiences are unable or unwilling to listen to and watch a performance of a baroque opera which lasts four hours or so. And when it is argued that some decisions, like cuts or shifting arias from one place to another and even from one character to another, are taken 'for dramatic reasons', I wonder why modern interpreters think they know better than the composer.
Considering the quality of Ferrandini's music, it is a shame that Catone in Utica isn't recorded complete. It is hardly to be expected that a complete recording will be made in the foreseeable future. But we should be very thankful that we have the opportunity to listen to this opera at all, in a performance which by and large is very good. In particular Kobie van Rensburg gives a moving and technically brilliant interpretation of the title role. He is very much aware of the different sides of Cato's character, and expresses them well. His opponent Caesar isn't given a macho portrayal. It was a good decision to ask the sopranist Robert Crowe to sing this role. He does so rather well, although I sometimes find his voice a bit shrill and runs and leaps aren't always technically perfect. Johnny Maldonado gives a sensitive interpretation of the role of Arbace. He uses his breast register to good effect in the aria 'Combattuta da tante vicende'. Unfortunately his diction isn't always as clear as it should be. Simone Schneider and Sandra Moon are convincing as Marzia and Emilia respectively, as is Florian Simson in the rather small role of Fulvio. The orchestra is excellent, colourful and full of dynamic contrast.
Considering this is a live recording the sound engineer has done a very good job. The booklet contains an essay by Christoph Hammer about the composer, the opera and the interpretation. It also sets out the libretto, with translations in German and English. The parts which have been cut, have been left out. A complete printing would have been preferable, as it would have allowed the listener to read the story in its entirety and it would have informed him about exactly which parts have been cut.
To sum up: despite its minor shortcomings this is a very interesting and recommendable release. I sincerely hope we shall hear more of Ferrandini's oeuvre in the future.'' MusicWeb International