Exhuming Handel as Editor

18 Mar

Yet more archeology. Opera Settecento presented “Handel”s Catone in Utica” at St George’s Hanover Square on 17th March claiming it as a modern premiere – certainly the first performance since 1732. It’s not really by Handel – edited by Handel certainly – but there’s barely a note by him in the original.

Handel frequently included pasticcios in his London seasons as a way of introducing London to arias by other European composers. Here, he took a libretto by Metastasio which had been set by a couple of composers, most recently the Venetian, Leo. He cut the recitative and replaced a number of Leo’s arias with ones by Hasse, Porpora, Vinci and Vivaldi, selected to suit the individual singers and, possibly, the situation. Unlike the Vivaldi, L’oracolo in Messenia the other week, we can be pretty sure that this was, more or less, what Handel’s audiences heard.

The piece is about Cato committing suicide rather than recognise Caesar as emperor and a love triangle whereby his daughter Marzia is betrothed to his ally, Arbace, but is in love with Cesare. Pompey’s wife Emilia also appears – not quite sure why. It moves reasonably swiftly and provides a neat enough showcase for some interesting arias. Stylistically they are all very different and there isn’t much unity about them but they are all grateful and of a very high quality. It’s hard to feel much interest in the characters or their problems and the performance didn’t really help this.

All of these arias were written for virtuoso singers at the height of their powers. Here we had mostly young singers working with enthusiasm and talent and generally getting by. They were here for the arias and I very much wondered how much work the recitative had had – I wasn’t sure how many of them understood or cared about what they understood what they were singing; it all moved slowly, undramatically.

The best impressions were made by Emilie Renaud as the second role of Arbace and by Christopher Jacklin as Cesare. Both appeared to understand what they were singing, enjoyed communicating it and sang very well. Renaud’s arias may be less flashy but she sang them with a rich, communicative, sincerity. Jacklin’s required some pretty fiendish coloratura and he did a remarkably fine job of them.

As Marzia, Erica Eloff seemed rather cool but sang stylishly – particularly the fiendish final aria from Vinci’s Artaserse. Christina Gansch was rather anonymous as Emilia.

Catone was meant to be sung by Andrew Watts, but he was ill. In the circumstances we have to be grateful to Christopher Robson for stepping in at short notice to undertake what must have been entirely unfamiliar music. I’ll leave it at that.

Tom Foster conducted fluidly and keeping the show moving. He struck me as having a real feel for this sort of music and his orchestra played pretty well for him.

I wouldn’t rush back to see this piece again but I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to experience it and I may well search out some CDs of the arias.


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