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Catone in Barga

Handel’s Catone is a pasticcio in the musical sense of the word since the divino sassone took an old Metastasian text, already used umpteen times by other composers, re-hashed it a bit and then set the arias to other composers’ music.

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“Pasticcio” has to be one of Italy’s most multifariously used words.

The exclamation “Che pasticcio!”, for example, depending on one’s tone and expression, could mean “what a great meat pie!” or “what a mess!”, or “what a botched up-job!”

I would also add that it seems to me in my darker moment that the Italian government is often largely in “un gran pasticcio”…….

So what did I mean when I exclaimed when coming out of Barga’s opera performance last night “che pasticcio!”

Handel’s Catone is a pasticcio in the musical sense of the word since the divino sassone took an old Metastasian text, already used umpteen times by other composers, re-hashed it a bit and then set the arias to other composers’ music.

The advantages of composing, or more accurately, arranging a pasticcio in the vibrant eighteenth baroque opera scene had, of course, many advantages, especially for hard-pressed Handel. Not only did it save time by using other people’s music (copyright laws were rather laxer in those days) but it presented an eighteenth century precursor, like a record company’s sampler, of all the different musical styles then raging on the continent. It was easy to spot Hasse’s more thorough-composed arias from Leonardo Vinci’s (no relation) Neapolitan style. Since opera was made up of clearly defined aria and recitatives it was easy to slot in different bits, something which in contemporary operas would be impossible, if not criminal, unless of course, you take all your favourite songs from different musicals and string them together into a story line.

This year it’s truly pasticcio time, and I’m not talking of hashed-up jobs or even meat hashes, but operatic pasticci. Handel cobbled nine of them together largely between 1730 and 1734, at least one of them using arias from his own operas. Catone came out in 1732 at London’s King’s theatre in the Haymarket at a time when the composer’s operatic fortunes were declining because of changing public taste, a rising middle-class, the growth of non-conformist religions, the expense of Italian singers, and the wish for something more morally uplifting. The path was set for Handel’s last great achievement in fashioning oratorio.

Those lucky enough to attend London’s (unstaged) performance of Catone in the church dutifully attended by Handel at St George’s Hanover square (the same church, incidentally where my dad was christened) got a second, staged, helping at Barga opera last night.

This was the cast list for Catone:

Conductor Carlo Ipata

Scenery and production I SACCHI DI SABBIA (Giulia Gallo, Giovanni Guerrieri, Giulia Solano)

Singers rehearsed by Roberta Invernizzi

Catone Benedetta Mazzucato

Cesare Paolo Marchini

Marzia Myriam Arbouz

Arbace Genevieve Tschumi

Emilia Cristina Grifone

Orchestra Auser Musici

Scenery Francesca Pieretti

Lighting Federico Polacci

Costume design Lucia Castellana

The production was semi-minimalist in an acceptable way making us concentrate on the music. The plot anyway was a little confusing. It ended, strangely, with no chorus but with the suicide of republican Cato and accession of Rome’s first emperor Caesar singing a triumphant aria “Vo solcando un mar crudele” taken from Vinci’s opera “Artaserse” (a subject incidentally also set by our own Thomas Arne).

Here is the great Argentinian counter-tenor, Franco Fagioli, singing this absolutely exhilarating finale aria in a complete recording of “Artaserse”:

Roberta Invernizzi’s preparation of the singer displayed brilliantly. I couldn’t truly single one singer out as outstanding but they worked really well as soloists and as a team.

The pasticcio opera seems to me to be a bit like a baroque juke-box experience– a journey through all the European regional styles Handel had picked up and developed into his own inimitable style. Prominent among these was the Neapolitan which, in my opinion, gave rise to the Galante style which quickly superseded late baroque, especially with the arrival in London of J. S. Bach’s youngest son, Johann Cristian in 1762, just three years after Handel’s death.

Among the plenitude of attractive arias there were a few which really made me sit up and listen more assiduously. Among these was “Non paventa del mare” from Porpora’s Siface, again sung by the marvellous Cesare of Paolo Marchini, Emilia’s enticing “Vede il nocchier” from Hasse’s Euristeo sung by the sprightly Cristina Grifone.

Genevieve Tschumi sang another spectacular Porpora aria “Quando piomba” from his Poro and her da capo embellishments sent shivers down my spine.

I was in a box on the third row and could really feel Saharan heat coming in from Cato’s home town of Utica in Tunisia. Fortunately, I was alone so managed to take my shirt off (I did have a t-shirt underneath!). But be warned it was a hot night both operatically and climatologically!

I felt the most comfortable member in the theatre was the goldfish in its cool bowl on stage although I felt I might have to call the Italian equivalent of the RSPCA when whoever I thought was feeding it showed a dagger instead to the poor creature. I wonder if goldfish get royalties or even danger money….

The acoustics were perfect. Barga theatre is an unspoiled example of eighteenth century baroque horseshoe-shaped theatre and the sound balance has stunning presence (although a friend did complain to me during the interval that the baroque guitarist was a bit too thumpingly loud. Certainly, the subtler theorbo the same musician used more prominently in the second half produced a more satisfactory continuo sound).

I’m really looking forwards to my next pasticcio. I don’t care whether it’s a Cornish pasty or pasta al pasticcio di tacchino but it’s certainly got to have a good cook that can Handle such pasticci to perfection as all the singers under the supreme guidance of Roberta Invernizzi and the instrumentalists under the baton of Carlo Ipata so tastefully catered and served up for us in Catone in Barga.

Ah well, I’ll just have to stick to an after-barga-opera ice-cream instead (lemon, fig and ricotta flavour)!

Article by Francis Pettitt – more can be found on his extremely informed and entertaining site here

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