Well received in 1719 as a composer of opera buffa (comic opera), Leonardo Vinci from the Naples district seized the opportunity to try his hand at the more serious genre of opera seria, which often took its themes from Roman history. By 1725 he was so highly acclaimed that George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) composed an imitation of his work for production in London.
This evening’s concert presents one of Leonardo’s serious operas, Catone in Utica, to a libretto by Metastasio, a pseudonym for Antonio Domenico Trapassi (1698–1782), considered one of the greatest poets of his time, and popular with many composers, including Vivaldi and Mozart.
The action in Catone in Utica takes place at a critical time in the history of the Roman republic, around 40 BC, when Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) had seized power as a dictator. He did so because he believed that the republican system was incapable of running a state of the size of the Roman Empire, which extended throughout most of the known world.
On his quest for power Caesar had instigated a civil war against his former ally, the great general Pompey (106–48 BC). Pompey was surprisingly defeated at the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, in spite of having twice as many soldiers and far better equipment than Caesar. He fled to Egypt, where he was murdered shortly afterwards, probably at Caesar’s bidding.
Plot against Caesar
Caesar was victorious, but still had many adversaries. One of them was Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95–46 BC), or Cato the Younger. Like his possibly better-known great-grandfather, Cato the Elder, he was a practising stoic. His moral integrity, steadfastness and intense struggle against corruption, combined with great oratory skill, secured him many supporters.
In Catone in Utica Caesar and his friend Fulvius meet Cato in his home town of Utica in what is today Tunisia in order to seal a peace treaty. Although the Roman Senate had actually ordered Cato to negotiate an agreement, Cato refused to do so, and instead demanded Caesar’s resignation as dictator. For this reason Caesar wanted to meet Cato to try and change his mind, but Cato was warned by Emilia, the murdered general Pompey’s widow, of Caesar’s hostile attitude. Cato’s daughter Marcia, however, hoped for a peace treaty, as she was in love with Caesar. The problem was that Cato had already promised Marcia’s hand to Arbacius, so when Arbacius learnt that she was devoted to Caesar, he flew into a rage and was lured into Emilia’s plot against Caesar.
Emilia, who has a single wish – to avenge the murder of her late husband – lays out these plans for Fulvius. He reveals them to Caesar, and they decide to leave Utica by a secret road, exactly as Emilia has predicted that they will. However, before this occurs, Fulvius informs Cato (who is still unaware that Caesar has triumphed on every front, including Cato’s own troops) of this. The news is shocking to Cato, who realises that resistance is useless. Reluctant to capitulate, he takes his own life. Before doing so, he forgives his daughter Marcia on the condition that she marries Arbacius and hates Caesar. At the news of Cato’s death the plot against Caesar is postponed, and the opera ends.
Da capo arias
The opera is constructed in the manner prevalent at the time: a combination of recitatives which narrate the action and drive the opera forward, and da capo arias. A da capo aria has the form ABA, where the second A is a repeat (da capo) of the first, but with ornamentation and variations. Since audiences were familiar with the plot of the opera, they were less interested in the recitatives, preferring private enjoyment in their luxurious boxes at the opera house. When the arias were sung, however, they pulled the curtains back and paid attention.
Banished to oblivion
When Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87) introduced the modern opera with his Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, the earlier operatic form went out of fashion, banishing Leonardo Vinci to oblivion. He was not rediscovered until 2012, when the ensemble Parnassus – this evening’s performers – put on his best known opera, Artaserse. Now the ensemble has moved on to Catone in Utica. There is every reason to rejoice!
Text: Gunnar Danbolt
English version: Roger Martin