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 Recording of the Week  Max Cencic and Franco Fagioli sing Leonardo Vinci's Catone in Utica

Besides being one of the finest and most individual countertenors singing today, Max Emanuel Cencic has become an energetic ambassador for the wonderfully rich repertoire written for the great Italian castrati, which fell into obscurity after the demise of the ‘unkindest cut of all’. He’s also something of an impresario and mentor, seeking out unusual high male voices for which the term ‘countertenor’ is scarcely adequate and bringing them together in spectacular revivals of works which have lain unperformed for centuries. This month it’s Leonardo Vinci’s Catone in Utica, premiered in Rome in 1728, where women were banned from appearing on the operatic stage; as with their astonishing account of the same composer’s Artaserse a couple of years ago (employing several of the same singers), the Parnassus team keep things authentic by employing an all-male cast.

Max Emanuel Cencic
Max Emanuel Cencic

Dramatising the overthrow of the ageing Cato by a rather reluctant Caesar, Vinci’s opera contains some staggeringly original material from both a musical and dramatic point of view: the final act contains a masterly quartet (these are rarer than hen’s teeth in baroque opera), and Catone’s lengthy death-throes (brought off with supreme pathos by Spanish tenor Juan Sancho) are depicted with all the intensity of the agonies of the Old Prioress in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites 300 years later.

Franco Fagioli certainly comes and conquers as Caesar, arresting attention from the moment he enters and establishing the character’s authority and compassion in his long opening exchange with Catone. I’ve enthused about his prodigious agility, three-octave range and vast array of vocal colours in these pages before, but even if you’ve marvelled at his wizardry before you’ll find new wonders to enjoy here: the rapid coloratura in ‘Se in campo armato’ practically breaks the speed-barrier!

Cencic himself excels as the lovelorn, borderline masochistic Arbace (surely one of the most popular names in baroque opera?!), singing with his customary eloquence in his multiple Woe-Is-Me arias and eventually bringing out the big guns to spectacular effect in Act Three with the virtuosic ‘Combattuta’. There’s also palpable chemistry with Valer Sabadus’s Marzia, Catone’s daughter (who is in love with Caesar but promised to Arbace), their lengthy recitative encounters really exploring out the various shades of grey (I’ll get my coat…) in their complex relationship. Sabadus also sounds consistently gorgeous and convincingly feminine, minxy and arch in the early stretches and pathetic in the tragic denouement.

In the other female role is newcomer Vince Yi (who appeared on Decca’s recent Five Countertenors disc), a South Korean sopranist with a timbre of such sweetness and purity that one could easily mistake him for a female soubrette: here he takes the role of Pompey’s vengeful, manipulative widow Emilia, and if it took me a little while to warm to his relative lack of vocal drama it lends a sort of deadly passivity to the character that becomes actively chilling in the latter stretches of the opera. But the new voice which really captivated me was that of the young Austrian tenor Martin Mitterrutzner, in the relatively thankless role of Caesar’s general Fulvio: there’s a distinctive, almost metallic edge to his agile voice, and he sings with such palpable commitment and rock-solid technique that I can’t wait to hear more. Check him out as he psyches Caesar up for victory in ‘La fronde, che circonda a’ vincitori il crine’ to get the full measure of his talent.

Even by baroque opera standards, Catone is heavy on the secco recitative (there are several stretches of eight minutes or more which might usefully have been pruned), but such is the commitment of the cast and Vinci’s gift for pacing the drama that you’ll likely find that the temptation to skip to the next fireworks aria quickly recedes. But if it’s fireworks you want, Catone has them in spades. Breathtaking.

Vinci, Leonardo: Catone in Utica

Max Emanuel Cencic (Arbace), Franco Fagioli (Cesare), Valer Sabadus (Marzia), Martin Mitterutzner (Fulvio), Vince Yi (Emilia), Juan Sancho (Catone), Il Pomo D'oro, Riccardo Minasi

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC