There is something very special about attending the premiere of a great work, where all discoveries happen in real time. Saturday evening the energy was electrifying, filled with gasps and eruptions of spontaneous applause. The production was indeed stunning from the opening moment.
As the lights went down and the giant side-walls of Glimmerglass slid shut, the lighting on stage, superbly designed by Robert Wierzel, transported us to a magical world evoking the “melt down” of the last days of the Roman Empire. Crumbling facades of pillars and other chunks of monuments from the classical world glowed red and metallic gold, seemingly burnished by a North African sun but also a kind of congealed Armageddon.
Set designer John Conklin had created a second framing device within this stage framing with a central alcove which would periodically reveal beautifully rendered paintings in a classical Italian style. These were combined with screens and canvas squares of various sizes from the modern era that would drop down and likewise glowed, reminiscent of Rothko’s blocks of throbbing drenched hues. This combination of old and new heralded for the audience the way the old work would speak to us in taut and fresh ways.
The chamber opera by Vivaldi was composed in 1737 and contains only six characters, but they were first introduced one by one, each caught in a characteristic pose. What a runway event for costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti. She displayed not only a superb knowledge of early eighteenth-century operatic “fashion” in the use of trains and rich brocaded fabrics but forged each “character” creatively in color, style, and fabric’s movement. This allowed the central figure of Cato, in creamy white toga, to stand in contrast, and indicated both his characters unblemished “purity” and his obdurate, prideful restraint.
With only a musical hiccough at the start of the show, the masterful Ryan Brown reined in the baroque-sized orchestral ensemble, whom we should excuse, having leapt as they’d done from show styles in rep this weekend that stretched from Vivaldi to Verdi to Bernstein. Brown then drove the players to solid victory as masterfully as Ben Hur brought his steeds in as the winning chariot team in Rome’s coliseum. What a stroke of brilliance to bring this conductor for this opera at Glimmerglass!
Brown knows this music deeply, serving as Artistic Director of Opera Lafayette, a Washington-based opera company focusing on early operatic repertoire. I love watching this man conduct. It’s as if he lifts off the podium and balancées through the score, nimble as a dancer from that period.
My God, what a cast! And to think that fully half of the singers were plucked from the Young Artists program. (All hail, Michael Heaston, Associate Artistic Director, who roams the country to find these artists.) Not only could these performers sing this most difficult-styled score with its impossibly long lines and lots of trills, but they fulfilled characterization and choreographic demands to gel as a tight ensemble.
Megan Samarin as Cato’s daughter was simply radiant and “owned” the stage with a confidence both vocally and physically. Eric Jurenas managed to portray both great masculinity and playful, compelling gentleness, singing successfully in the tricky range of countertenor with an occasional plunge into a fully resonant depth. Allegra De Vita as Fulvio created what was for me the most convincing cross-gender “pants role” of any stage production I’ve ever seen. This mezzo-soprano so attacked her music with a kind of masculine passion and brought such athleticism to the stage, she was “a beast.”
Cato in Utica
at Glimmerglass Festival
July 18 – August 22
7300 State Highway 80
Cooperstown, NY 13326
2 hours with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets or call (607) 547-2255
The cross-gender aspect of this opera was electrifying and added all the more to its contemporary feel, and yet it was all supported in Vivaldi’s score. He wrote the most lyrical, “feminine” melodic aria for Caesar and arguably some of the most driving masculine passages for Fulvio. For the role of Emilia, he created a double challenge, and Sarah Mesko manages to carry the key plot points and change from a graceful Roman widow in imperial purple to her disguise as the manful Fulvio and would-be assassin of Caesar.
Never once did the predictable structure of A-B-A of Vivaldi’s work in any way limit the performers from pushing forward the work dramatically. Even in the ornamentation, where singers have the opportunity to engage in “playing” even improvising lines, the singers integrated these passages beautifully and without excess. They were supported in these sections with gorgeous and empathetic continuo playing of harpsichord (Christopher Devlin,) cello (Ruth Berry,) and the elegant sound of the period instrument, the theorbo, (Michael Leopold.)
This was indeed an ensemble production, but when John Holiday opened his mouth as Caesar, there was also the glorious high-point moment in opera of suddenly being in the presence of a sound so remarkable, the audience gasped in recognition of greatness. Even more delicious, every impossibly high note of this counter tenor role was supported and colored emotionally.
If I have left the titled player until last, I wanted to give special honor to Thomas Michael Allen. If the tenor did not display the vocal fireworks of Holiday nor possess the “freaky” counter tenor sound so appreciated in that period (albeit then achieved by the unfortunate practice of maiming pre-pubescent boys to become castrati,) nonetheless he filled the central role with much dignity and presence. For long stretches on stage Allen has to hold a pose and evoke stony will or at the end stand in a carefully staged tragic tableau. He makes these moments both elegant and wrenching. How does a performer portray someone who somehow feels already to have sailed into posterity and turned to stone? But Allen also snaps into action when Cato rails against his daughter with savage cruelty and never loses his focus or vocal intensity.
Tazewell Thompson has directed the opera brilliantly. This is a director who knows how to create both gorgeous stage pictures and tell the story with a clarity and respect for the form and style of the original work. I loved how he helped the opera dramatically by whisking the characters off stage at the end of each scene. We were moved along visually and emotionally just as surely as we were moved by Maestro Brown’s musical sensibilities and conducting.
If there is one opera to see at Glimmerglass this season, this is it, I wager. If you can’t make it to New York, catch the production in Washington when it comes to the Kennedy Center for two nights in November under Opera Lafayette.
Cato in Utica . Composed by Antonio Vivaldi . Libretto by Metastasio . Conducted by Ryan Brown . Directed by Tazewell Thompson . Produced by Glimmerglass Festival . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.