Teatro Comunale Ferrara 2023 Review: Catone In Utica

Sardelli Oversees A Musically Sensitive & Insightful Presentation Of Rarely Performed Vivaldi Opera

By Alan Neilson
Photo: Marco Caselli Nirmal

Ferrara’s Teatro Comunale served up a rare treat with a production of Vivaldi’s 1737 opera “Catone in Utica” to a libretto by Metastasio. Well, it was not a complete presentation, as the music for the first act was lost. As a result, we were left with a truncated version comprising Acts two and three, which had a running time of just over an hour and a half.

The theme of the opera centers on the conflict between love and duty, set against the background of war. Having defeated and killed Pompeo in battle, Cesare is seeking to consolidate his power by removing his final obstacle, Catone. This is complicated by the fact he has fallen in love with Catone’s daughter, Marzia, who in turn has been promised in marriage to Arbace. Add in the presence of Emilia, Pompeo’s widow, who is seeking revenge for her husband’s death, and Fulvio, a Roman legate, who is in love with Emilia, and the drama is ready to play out along the usual well-trodden path.

Bellussi Downplays The Military Aspect

It is, however, a path along which very little happens, or at least that was the impression given in this production, directed by Marco Bellussi. Having examined the libretto carefully, he concluded that the “relationship dynamics between the characters are not those that could develop on the battlefront.” So out when any direct scenic allusions to a battlefield or armed combat, including in Act two, which should take place in a military encampment. Instead, the two acts were played out in the “refined and elegant context” of a villa by the sea. The closest the two main protagonists came to armed conflict was in a game of chess, with Catone using the white pieces and Cesare the black, which was a little strange given that black is usually associated with defensive tactics. There were the occasional aggressive spats in which Cesare’s men crossed batons with Emilia’s men, but they amounted to little more than posturing.

However, it was by no means a poor staging. On the contrary, Matteo Paoletti Franzato’s single set design consisting of columns arranged symmetrically with antique-styled chairs, loungers, plinths, and tables adorned with romanesque statues, candles, and vases ensured it was aesthetically pleasing. Everything was predominantly white, apart from gold-colored furniture trimmings and the occasional golden object. Only the presence of dark-colored rocks, located in front of the villa, and the grey low-lying table and benches for the crucial chess game disrupted the scene.

Elias Cobello’s costume designs, based largely around traditional classical attire but with an added modern twist, complemented Franzato’s set. They were elegant, refined, and stylishly fashioned, with Cesare and his men dressed in black and Catone and his companions in white, in an allusion to the chess game. His daughter, Marzia, wore a long white and faded blue gown, while Emilia, who sided with Catone, was in a long, flowing white and bright red dress.

The stage action was largely sedate. Rarely did the characters spin wildly out of control, even as their passions rose, with the possible exception of the chess game. Instead, movements were often stylized, occasionally bordering on the statuesque, which again reinforced the sense of order that defined the staging. Throughout the performance, there existed a calm, restrained, simple quality, which opened up the necessary space and provided a fitting contrast for Vivaldi’s music to shine and take wing, allowing the singers to give voice to their turbulent emotions.

Sardelli’s Engaging Musical Presentation

The musical side of the production was in the capable hands of the musical director Federico Maria Sardelli who, interestingly, has only recently released a book on Vivaldi. As expected, he elicited a dramatically strong performance from the Orchestra Barocca Accademia dello Spirito Santo, which captured the emotional twists and turns of the narrative. Their playing was sharp and precise, with an engaging vibrancy that brought out the full depth and breadth of the characters’ emotions during the arias.

The cast was strong throughout and well-versed in the baroque.

Soprano Arianna Vendittelli was an emotionally charged Cesare who freely voiced his feelings. In the game of chess, he was impatient and restless, moving the pieces quickly and aggressively with little thought compared to Catone’s more thoughtful, measured approach. He was prone to explosions of anger but also to moments of tender reflection when he muses on the nature of love and loving, such as in the aria “Se me senti spirati sul volto lieve,” for which she provided a confident, sensitive rendition that captured the pleasures and torments of love. Of Cesare’s three arias, it was “Se in campo armato” that best showed off the brilliance of Vendittelli’s technique and interpretive abilities as she exploded into a passionate rage at Catone’s rejection of his offer to marry Marzia. As the orchestra whipped up an atmosphere of anger and urgency, she unleashed an emotionally powerful tirade in which her spectacular coloratura, leaps, and embellishments left no one in doubt as to the strength of Cesare’s feelings. Recitatives were equally successful; they were detailed, sensitive to the meaning of the text, and delivered with emotional strength.

Mezzo-soprano Miriam Albano put in a spellbinding performance as Emilia. She possesses a strong presence, which she used to create an eccentric yet compelling portrait of Pompeo’s widow. She was noble and cunning, and she always appeared to be somewhere on stage, watching exactly what was going on as she planned her revenge. She actually seemed to be having fun with the role, even to the extent of mocking her own behavior. She has only two arias to sing, but they were performed with great sensitivity, skill, and assurance. She had to wait until the end of Act two for her first aria, for which she figuratively and literally delivered a show-stopping performance. In an expressively potent rendition of “Come invano il mare irato,” she let loose Emilia’s cry for vengeance, in which her prodigious level of vocal versatility impressed as she raced along, delivering accurate, detailed, and ornate lines topped with her splendid coloratura.

Catone, played by tenor Valentino Buzza, was a reflective, honorable character who was ultimately unable to deal with the pressures assaulting him on all sides and so lashed out at all around him and ended up attempting suicide. It was a strongly defined performance, one in which it was easy to identify with his plight. His aria, “Dovea svenarti allora” was passionately sung as he convincingly combined his feelings of rage and devastation at Marzia’s betrayal. Later, when he doubled down on his feelings in the duet with Marzia, “Fuggi dal guardo mio,” he once again successfully revealed his inner pain to good effect. His recitatives were expressive, clearly articulated, and expressive.

Mezzo-soprano Valeria Giradello produced an excellent portrait of the deeply conflicted Marzia, whose love for both her father and his enemy, Cesare, was sensitively developed. Hers, however, is a character defined by its passivity; rarely does she attempt to take control of a situation, and her arias reflect the fact. Her first aria, “Il povero mi core,” which is little more than the musings of a young woman feeling sorry for herself, was nevertheless delicately rendered and displayed the pleasing lyrical quality of her voice to good effect. In the aria “Se parto, se resto,” she convincingly imbued the vocal line with uncertainty and vulnerability and made her heartfelt pain very clear, while in the duet with her father, all she can do is utter despairing words as she watches on as he rages.

Contralto Chiara Brunello impressed as Fulvio. Like Marzia, he has conflicting feelings. He loves Emilia, but she seeks Cesare’s death, to whom he owes his loyalty. In the aria “Degl’Elisi dal soggiorno,” she gave voice to his conflict with an energetic and expressive rendition that showed off the wonderful, rich coloring and versatility of her voice. Recitatives were passionately and clearly delivered.

Soprano Valeria La Grotta was parted in the role of the unfortunate Arbace, who receives no sympathy from Marzia in his pursuit of her. His aria “S’andrà senza pastore” sums up his misplaced loyalty, for which she produced a delicate, lively, lyrical rendition that showed off her pleasing bright timbre to good effect.

Overall, this was a beautifully sung presentation that was complemented by elegant staging and sensitive direction. And if it fell a little short of promoting the visual side of the drama, this did not seriously interfere with the success of the performance.


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