Opera Lafayette Presents Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica

The Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, December 1, 2015—Baroque opera is rarely performed in New York and when it is, it is normally by Handel. It is therefore doubly nice to have welcomed the Washington, D.C.- based Opera Lafayette to the city to present Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica.

The libretto, by the prolific Metastasio, was set by Vinci, Leo, Piccinni, and J.C. Bach in addition to Vivaldi, who wrote the opera for the spring season in Verona in 1737. It was a great success. The music for the first act has been lost to history, and attempts at reconstruction come and go: a live recording from France on the Dynamic label appeared more than a dozen years ago with arias from other Vivaldi operas plugged in. It adds an extra hour to the 95-minute work and does little other than to set the scene for the two extant acts.

Opera Lafayette, borrowing most of a production from the Glimmerglass Festival directed by Tazewell Thompson, opted to tell the story of the first act through text projected above the proscenium during the overture. Nothing felt lost–the plot is one of the least involved of Metastasio’s: Cato, a principled founder of the Republic, has tired of Caesar’s dictatorial ways and has run off to Utica. His daughter Marzia, unbeknownst to him, is in love with Caesar, but Cato has promised Marzia to his general, Arbace. Emilia, Pompey’s widow in the company of Cato, despises Caesar and plots his murder and generally dislikes everyone in the opera.

Fulvio, Caesar’s lieutenant, acts as a go-between for Caesar and Cato, and loves Emilia despite her obvious lack of interest in him. Cato remains implacable and unswerving to the end, and in one of the opera’s two endings, goes off-stage and commits suicide. Ryan Brown, et al, offered the second ending–Cato and Emilia leave the stage embittered and the rest sing a quartet praising peace. It’s a bland finale.

The settings, such that they were, consisted of a broken sarcophagus or two and a throne, with a back curtain that changed colors to suit the mood. Just enough, actually. In Act 1, the men were dressed as if they were going to a nice restaurant; the women as if they were runway models. In Act 2 the women were more sporty, but mainly in black.

Let’s face it, since Catone’s brief playing time includes 11 full-fledged da capo arias, this is what is known as a stand-and-deliver opera. All of the “action” takes place in the recits, and the cast, singing in superb diction (for the recits; less so for the arias), has plenty of drama to express: Emilia is always angry (she tries to kill Caesar at one point); Cato is arrogant and mulishly stubborn; Fulvio is rejected, Marzia grieves; Arbace pines over Marzia. And Caesar, the most fully developed character, expresses love for Marzia and otherwise threatens war.

But this is all about virtuoso singing, and most of the cast had it in spades. Front and center is the Caesar of John Holiday, whose bright, expressive, huge, highly placed countertenor filled the house. A large presence–he looks amazingly like Fats Domino–he rails and rants and sings tenderly when needed, dispatching Vivaldi’s roulades with ease and to dramatic effect.

Second in command was Julia Dawson as the revenge-seeking Emilia, who brought down the house with her Act 1 closing aria and her second-act showpiece (accompanied by horns); her octave leaps, brilliant high notes, and snarling lower register almost stunned the audience. Anna Reinhold’s Marzia began foggily but won our sympathy. Eric Jurenas has a marvelous alto countertenor and he sang Fulvio’s one aria with intensity and accuracy; Marguerite Krull, in the thankless role of Arbace, looked and sounded bored, with a worn mezzo. Cato’s recitatives were excitingly and theatrically sung by Thomas Michael Allen–it was only in his two arias that one realized that his voice is pale and entirely lacks body and ping.

Ryan Brown is an expert in Baroque music but he is not fussy: his 24-instrument period band played with zip and was not devoid of vibrato. All of the arias were embellished in their da capos, and the recits were led in real time and with true dramatic thrust. The continuo players–a harpsichordist, cellist, theorbist/guitarist–added superbly, proving that this opera can actually work as drama despite its wan ending.