Catone in Utica

Antonio Vivaldi

Catone in Utica


About this work

Vivaldi's Catone in Utica had its premiere at the Teatro Filarmonico of Verona in May 1737. It sets one of Metastasio's earliest librettos, and one of his few dramatic works that has a tragic ending. The drama concerns the last confrontation between Cato, a defender of Roman liberty, and Caesar, who has just become supreme dictator. For his text, Metastasio drew on historical accounts of these last days of Cato from Plutarch's Vitae, Appian's Historiae, and Cassio Dio's Historiarum. Vivaldi's setting of the text contains a fine example of the use of "bassetto"; he often wrote the bass line of his accompaniments in the violas or upper registers of the orchestra, which results in successions of 6-4 chords and other unusual harmonies. In "Sarebbe un bel diletto" the violins play in unison with the solo voice, while the violas, without harpsichord, double the bass. This opera also contains several examples of simile arias with descriptive instrumental writing, in which the orchestra describes lively poetic images that occur in the text. This particular kind of aria often brought out the best in Vivaldi's imagination, as he responded to the text and created new combinations of sounds and forms.

One of the emotional and musical highlights of Vivaldi's Catone in Utica comes during Act III, as Cato rejects his daughter. In this scene, Vivaldi adapts the structure of the da capo aria to fit his dramatic needs. He has Cato's daughter join in her father's aria at important emotional points as a plaintive echo, repeating his harsh words in stunned confusion. In the first vocal section and ritornello the themes are presented simply, and the text and formal structure are adhered to. However, during the second vocal section the text and music become more fragmented, the harmonies become more chromatic, and the tonality shifts and modulates. The distraught echoes of the daughter Marzia interrupt at various moments of extreme tension. The B section to the aria contains new textures and accompaniment figures, more modulations, more woeful echoes on the part of Marzia, and an almost nonexistent recapitulation. The effect is intensely dramatic, as Cato's fury and Marzia's despair are placed side by side in the musical fabric, and as the strength of the opening statement devolves into emotional confusion.