July 18 Glimmerglass: Cato in Utica

John Holiday as Caesar in the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival production of Vivaldi's "Cato in Utica" (photo: Dory Schultz)

John Holiday as Caesar in the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival production of Vivaldi’s “Cato in Utica” (photo: Dory Schultz)

Glimmerglass Festival’s ‘Cato in Utica’ hails Caesar — and John Holiday’s magnificent countertenor

But the handsomely staged U.S. premiere of Vivaldi’s opera seria, though interesting, pales in comparison with Handel’s operas

By David Abrams

The Glimmerglass Festival presented the long awaited U.S. premier of Vivaldi’s “lost” opera Cato in Utica Saturday to an enthusiastic audience that left little doubt as to which singer was the most noble Roman of them all.

John Holiday is a protégé of the great countertenor David Daniels, and it shows. The African-American wunderkind sang his castrato role as Caesar with a silvery top register that jarred the listener’s sensibilities — so much so that I could have sworn I was listening to a soprano. Moreover, his delicacy of tone, aided by a hefty frame, gives Holiday a command of nuance that maintains its glimmer throughout a wide range of dynamic contrasts.

When we first hear him, expressing his love for Cato’s daughter in the lengthy aria Apri le luce e mira set against the backdrop of Scenic Director John Conklin’s imposing moon, Holiday stunned the crowd with his vocal purity of tone and rich degree of expression. The audience began showering him profusely with applause even before he reached the final section of the aria. (Of course, it’s possible they couldn’t tell the aria had not quite finished.)

John Holiday as Caesar (photo: Karli Cadel)

John Holiday as Caesar (photo: Karli Cadel)

Later, in the fiery aria Se in campo armato, Holiday unleashed the full fury of his voice to the accompaniment of blazing trumpets, with a series of angry coloraturas and trills as he admonishes his nemesis, Cato. Although he consistently rushed his rapidly ascending scalewise runs, Holiday brought the house down with this glorious aria — which gets my vote as this production’s showstopper.

Of all the characters, Holiday was the most demonstrably involved, wearing his feelings on his face for all to see whether projecting love, anger or indifference.

Written in 1737, Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica is one of several operatic versions on this libretto by the undisputed champion of Italian operas seria, Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782). Only the last two acts of the Vivaldi version survives, but a reconstruction of the missing sections by Alessandro Ciccolini, culled from the composer’s other instrumental and vocal compositions, has made it possible for musicologist Alan Curtis to provide a critical edition of the work used for the present production. (Sadly, Curtis passed away last week.)

Castrati and sopranos were the superstars of 18th-century opera seria, attracting spectators to the theater like today’s sports superstars draw crowds to the stadium. Cato in Utica originally called for two castrati (played on this occasion by countertenors), though no sopranos — only two mezzos and a tenor. Like his contemporaries, Vivaldi kept the musical focus squarely on the individual singers, without the “distractions” of a chorus or ensemble numbers.

The plot to Cato in Utica is loosely based on Roman history. The Roman senator Cato (Catone) joins forces with Julius Caesar’s (Guilio Cesare) enemies to usurp the dictator and restore Rome as a republic. But after Pompey’s defeat, Cato flees to Utica in North Africa with Pompey’s widow, Emilia. Caesar tracks them down and nobly extends an olive branch to the still-defiant Cato. The staunch republican however steadfastly refuses Caesar’s offer of peace, opting instead for suicide rather than serving under an emperor.

Typical of opera seria, quasi-historical plots such as this are laden with complicated love pairings designed to create drama and interest. Here, Caesar is in love with Cato’s daughter Marzia, while Caesar’s lieutenant Fulvio is in love with Emilia, who has sworn to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of Caesar. When not singing arias, the six-member cast spends virtually all its time fighting and hurling invective at one-another — an ancient Roman version, perhaps, of The Jerry Springer Show.

Placed into artistic perspective, Cato in Utica does not have a whole lot going for it. Vivaldi lacked the creative imagination, wit, lyrical gifts and vocal savoir-faire of his more talented contemporary, G.F. Handel. Indeed, Glimmerglass’s successful productions of Partenope (1998), Agrippina (2001), Giulio Cesare (2008) and Tolomeo (2010) dwarf the musical material in Cato in Utica — which, while interesting from a historical standpoint, hardly compares favorably against such worthy competition.

That said, there’s lots of interesting writing to be found here in Vivaldi da capo arias — the staples of the Italian opera seria genre set in ABA (ternary) musical form that invites (and in fact demands) improvisatory embellishments by the singers at the concluding repeated section. These repeated (da capo) sections afford singers a vehicle in which to showcase their technical command and vocal prowess.

Disappointingly, the present cast’s degree of ornamentation during the da capo sections was uniformly sparse and understated throughout the production, providing little in the way of meaningful variation. This is a stark departure from Baroque performance practice prevalent during the infamous “reign of the singers” that culminated in opera reform around mid-century, led by Gluck. The present Ciccolini reconstruction provides a measure of his own ornamentations written into the da capo sections, but it is well to remember that the individual singers are obliged to provide their own. That’s why music colleges and conservatories give courses in Baroque Performance Practice.

Sarah Mesko as Emilia (photo: Karli Cadel)

Sarah Mesko as Emilia (photo: Karli Cadel)

The singing in this production was strong, if somewhat uneven. Sarah Mesko, performing the role of Pompey’s spiteful widow, Emilia, sang with an attractive mezzo that while lacking in projection captured and held the listener’s attention. She had a secure grasp of the top tones in her big aria of vengeance (Come invanoil mare irato), which Vivaldi had tailor-made for his singer (and presumed paramour) Anna Girò. Indeed, Mesko showed a good deal of athleticism throughout her 16th-note coloraturas. But while Mesko proved she has the stamina for this brutal showpiece, I felt she never quite captured the necessary degree of rage in her character, which must approach the depths of pernicious Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute.

Thomas Michael Allen as Cato (photo: Dory Schultz)

Thomas Michael Allen as Cato (photo: Dory Schultz)

Like Mesko, Thomas Michael Allen lacked a good deal of the fire and brimstone required of his character in the role of the unbending super-patriot, Cato. And he never looked entirely comfortable in a toga.

Allen, the only tenor among the cast, does not have a large vocal presence. He nevertheless acted believably menacing in the fiery Dovea svenarti allora, breathing fire as he disavows his daughter, Marzia.

As the daughter, Glimmerglass Young Artist Megan Samarin used her tender and alluring mezzo to fashion a gentle and sympathetic Marzia.

Megan Samarin as Marzia (photo: Karli Cadel)

Megan Samarin as Marzia (photo: Karli Cadel)

Her lugubrious aria Se parto, se resto pulled at the heartstrings, with an attractive vocal quality that pleased the ears at all times. But she, too, could have benefited greatly from a better-projected vocal effort.

Rounding out the cast are another pair of Glimmerglass Young Artists — mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita as Fulvio) and countertenor Eric Jurenas as Arbace.

De Vita sang with a handsome mezzo that when needed had the necessary edge to deliver the proper degree of heat and passion in her L’ira mia, bella sdegnata. Jurenas, as the “other” countertenor in the production, had to play second fiddle to Holiday’s inspiring vocal display. He nevertheless sang beautifully, with an attractive golden mezzo quality to his voice that served him well during the playful S’andra senza pastore, as he serenades Marzia early on in the opera.

Director Tazewell Thompson keeps the action around the time Cato fled to Africa following Pompey’s defeat (and subsequent assassination) in 48 B.C., aided by period garb fashioned by Costume Designer Sara Jean Tosetti. As the only character dressed in a toga, Thomas Michael Allen looked rather silly — as if he had gotten lost on the way to a shooting of National Lampoon’s Animal House. Choreographer Anthony Salatino helped the characters maintained a proper sense of grace and movement onstage — no easy task considering the long stretches of da capo arias where those not singing have such little to do.

Conklin’s eye-popping scenery provides an epic Hollywood look and feel to the set, anchored by a once-proud arrangement of bronze-colored walls and mighty columns that now lay in a sorry state of disrepair, ostensibly due to the war. The center of the set opens up to a magnificent archway that affords the audience changing views of the great outdoors, including a stunning gradual sunset that comes to life through Robert Wierzel’s awesome lighting effects.

Conklin uses a curious recurring motif: an orange-colored square, sometimes large and sometimes small, which positions itself in the archway at various moments throughout the opera. This anachronistic geometric figure seems superfluous to the rest of the scenery, as well as to the drama unfolding onstage. It reminded me of the iconic monolith that reappears at different points throughout Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Kubrick never explained the meaning of the monolith, inviting viewers to draw their own interpretations. Conklin ain’t talking either.

In the Vivaldi original, the composer bows to the pressure of his producers — whitewashing Cato’s suicide from Metastasio’s script in favor of a happy ending whereby the defeated Cato is pardoned by Caesar, who in turn gains the hand of Cato’s daughter in marriage. Credit Tazewell and company for restoring the version Vivaldi had wished for.

Adding music interpolated from one of Vivaldi’s instrumental works (with a sinuous oboe obbligato), this production completely alters the final scene to suit history — and does so with the utmost taste and refinement. In the final moments we see Cato hunched over in his bathtub with a symbolic red ribbon drooping from each wrist. When the other characters arrive they bow to the man who placed his values above anything, and anyone.

A Baroque-sized chamber orchestra, anchored by a continuo of harpsichord, cello and theorbo, accompanied the singers from a raised pit that afforded the instrumentalists closer proximity to the singers. The results were obvious: Ensemble was tight throughout the performance. Conductor Ryan Brown, artistic director of Opera Lafayette, favored quick tempos but never pushed the singers beyond their limits.

As an historical curiosity, Cato in Utica is a satisfying dramatic work that in many ways tells us more about Vivaldi than the composer’s 500-plus instrumental concertos for which he is better known. As an opera, however, it will likely remain in the shadows of those composers who, to put it simply, did a better job.

“I’m a better person for having experienced this work,” I thought as I left the theater following the two-hour and 20-minute production. But I doubt I’d go out of my way to hear it a second time.

Details Box:
What: Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica, libretto by Metastasio
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Performance reviewed: July 18, 2015
Time: About two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
Language: Sung in Italian with projected English titles
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $144 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Website: www.glimmerglass.org
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 24, Aug. 20; 8 p.m. Aug. 1; 1:30 p.m. July 27, Aug. 4, 9, 16, 22

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