The Roman poet Catullus' affair with his mistress Lesbia may not be the greatest love story in the history of Western literature. But it's surely the most human. The 25 poems that the youthful patrician wrote to his older (and married) lover explore every conceivable human emotion. Love, lust, jealousy, rage — it's all there. No wonder these short, lyrical and occasionally vulgar verses have influenced just about every poet (and hopeless romantic) from antiquity to the present.
One artist who has come under Catullus' impassioned spell is the composer Michael Linton, a music theory and composition professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Linton has taken 18 of Catullus' poems, fragments and epigrams and turned them into an expansive song cycle for baritone and piano. The French bass-baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer and American pianist Jason Paul Peterson premiered the cycle, called Carmina Catulli, at Carnegie Hall in March. Their recording of the work was released last week on Linton's own label, Refinersfire.
Almost everything we know about Catullus comes from his 116 surviving poems and from a few contemporaneous accounts from prominent Romans like Cicero. It is believed that Catullus was born in Verona in 84 B.C. to a wealthy family — his father was reportedly a friend of Julius Caesar. The poet died in 54 B.C. One thing we know for sure: Catullus was no traditionalist. Traditional poets of antiquity wrote epic verse about important things — gods, kings, heroes, battles.
Catullus' poems, in sharp contrast, were anything but Olympian. "Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love," he wrote in his famous and widely imitated Poem 5. In his infamous Poem 16, "Pedicabo ego uos er irrumabo," he hurls insults at his enemies using language crude and sexually explicit enough to make a gangsta rapper blush. (As a Roman pagan, Catullus was not weighed down by Judeo-Christian morality.)
Linton responds to this poetry (which he keeps in the original Latin) with music that is full of vivid color and allusion. In the opening song, an invocation of the goddess Diana, the percussive piano accompaniment calls to mind the sound of a pagan ritual. The piano figurations in "Passer, deliciae meae puellae," Catullus' clever double entendre about Lesbia's pet sparrow, evoke Olivier Messiaen-like bird songs.
The score brims with sonic effects. In the opening of "Let us live, my Lesbia," the baritone seems utterly breathless with his orgasmic repetition of the word "vivamus" (live). The pianist, meanwhile, creates a sense of post-coital dreaminess with glissandos that cascade up white keys and down black ones. In one of his most inspired moments, Linton uses a chord progression from Cosi fan tutte, Mozart's opera about the fickleness of women, to harmonize "Nulli se decit mulier," Catullus' take on the same subject.
Carmina Catulli makes extraordinary technical demands on both performers; Crossley-Mercer and Peterson are equal to the challenges. A veteran of the European opera stage, Crossley-Mercer gives a performance that is delightfully theatrical. He can seemingly produce every vocal color, from dark, chesty bottom notes to a creamy and vaporous falsetto. He sings lyrical numbers such as the aforementioned "Nulli se decit mulier" with sweet sensitivity, and he tosses off Catullus' insults ("Pedicabo ego uos er irrumabo") with lots of vocal vitriol. His rendition of "Multas per gentes," Catullus' heartfelt elegy to his brother, is heartrending. Peterson, for his part, proves to be in complete command of the keyboard, playing from beginning to end with nuance, sensitivity and effortless virtuosity.
It's perhaps worth noting that the dashing Crossley-Mercer is a favorite subject of the website Barihunks, which focuses exclusively on the opera world's sexiest baritones. Catullus, as sexually omnivorous as any party-hardy Roman patrician, would no doubt have found both the singer and the website to his liking.