|Julia Dawson and John Holiday as Emilia and Caesar in Vivaldi's Catone in Utica (photo by Louis Forget)
Opera librettists often play fast and loose with history and Pietro Metastsio's libretto for Antonio Vivaldi's Catone in Utica is no exception. Do we care? Truthfully, not very much. But we did very much enjoy Maestro Ryan Brown's introductory lecture which enhanced our experience last night of Opera Lafayette's production at the perfectly suitable theater of John Jay College.
This seems to be our week for a side of education with our feast of entertainment. We learned that Metastasio, a highly celebrated Roman educated in the law, wrote two versions of the story--the first set by Leonardo Vinci which was a failure. Romans of the early 18th c. were unhappy with his violation of the convention against showing death onstage. (Imagine all the wonderful Italian operas written in the 19th c. and how they would play out without the death scene! Perish forbid!) Therefore, Cato's grisly self disembowelment could not be shown.
His second version (set by Vivaldi and several other composers) left the ending ambiguous or had Cato commit suicide offstage. We did not see the version performed at Glimmerglass but last night's performance appeared to have an almost happy ending with Cato walking offstage--which ended the otherwise thrilling evening in a not quite satisfying manner.
It is always a special event when Opera Lafayette visits from our nation's capitol, usually bringing a delectable and overlooked French opera. This time they brought a largely forgotten Italian Baroque opera composed toward the end of Vivaldi's life. Of this prolific composer's oeuvre, barely twenty opera scores survived. In point of fact, the music for Act I was lost but the clever director Tazewell Thompson utilized the overture (borrowed from another Vivaldi opera) to introduce the characters onstage with some illustrative comments on the surtitle screen--a most successful ploy to replace a perhaps boring exposition.
The story concerns the intransigent and uncompromising Cato in opposition to the conquering Caesar who was here depicted, not as a tyrranical dictator, but as a swell fella, cheerful and ready to compromise. Metastasio invented a love story between Caesar and Cato's daughter which causes the rigid and unlikable Cato to disown his daughter in a most ugly fashion. Se non è vero, è ben trovato!
As to the music, Opera Lafayette achieved a stunning success, thanks to apt casting and the truly excellent Opera Lafayette Orchestra, the string section of which was called upon to limn the action with painterly color; Vivaldi himself was a gifted violinist. Significant contributions came from the oboe which sang of nature, the trumpets which blared of battle, and the valveless horns which referenced the wounded lion. The superb continuo, comprising Andrew Appel at the harpsichord, Loretta O'Sullivan on the cello, and Michael Leopold on the guitar and theorbo, supported the unusually expressive recitativi.
The singers all had superb voices and acting skills, making the far-fetched completely believable. We are very fond of the countertenor fach and it was quite a treat to hear two of them side by side and to hear the subtle differences.
The role of Cesare was performed by John Holiday whose tone is larger than most. His vocal colors varied widely from his legato love aria toward Cato's daughter Marzia to his whooping upward glissandi while threatening battle. Mr. Holiday is truly a stage animal.
In the smaller role of Fulvio, Caesar's lieutenant, Eric Jurenas exhibited a lighter sound that was pleasant to the ear.
There were three mezzo-sopranos in the cast. Julia Dawson, well remembered from her major George London award last winter, put heart and soul into her portrayal of Emilia, the widow of Pompey, who is seeking revenge against Caesar. We have written about the many shades of sadness in Schubert's song cycles; here, Ms. Dawson created the many shades of anger. Her voice, like Mr. Holiday's, is a force of nature and she acts in such a visceral manner, using her entire body, that we were actually feeling it. Her handling of the fioritura was nothing short of dazzling.
Anna Reinhold's Marzia was a different kind of performance. Vivaldi did not give this character much to sing in the way of memorable arias but she was incredibly musical in the recitativi. Her voice is on the slender side and was overwhelmed by the orchestra when she was in the middle and lower part of her range. At the upper register she came through perfectly.
Marguerite Krull performed the pants role of the prince Arbace, an ally of Cato's, who was promised Marzia's hand. It was painful to watch her reject his advances, even as she occasionally seemed to lead him on. But, Marzia is in love with Caesar and will defy her father and the entire world to have him.
As the eponymous Cato, tenor Thomas Michael Allen gave an excellent portrayal of the stubborn holdout against Caesar, but the deck is stacked against him. Without substantial arias to show off, he was obliged to use the recitativi to convey both his higher quality of idealism and his negative quality of stubbornness. His unsympathetic character was difficult to relate to but that seems to us to be the mark of a fine performance.
Costume Consultant Sara Jean Tosetti dressed all the characters in modern attire and the nearly bare stage (a simple metal throne for Cato and a few upturned sarcophagi) was sensitively lit by Lighting Designer Amith Chandrashaker--a simple wash of color on the back wall, corresponding to the mood of the scene.
Opera Lafayette will return in February with Emmanuel Chabrier's Une Education Manquée. We are filled with anticipation for another major success.
(c) meche kroop