There’s much to learn watching a production being remounted by essentially the same team. The riches and new challenges proved fascinating in the rarity of Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica that played for two performances this past weekend at the Kennedy Center.
I had seen the opera’s American premiere last summer at Glimmerglass Festival. Now Opera Lafayette has brought its signature style and attention to Vivaldi’s music, proving the work a newly mined treasure under the baton of Artistic Director Ryan Brown.
Brown has an unerring ear and sympathetic understanding of the Baroque repertoire in which his company has gained world-class recognition. From the first bars of the overture, the attack of the strings brought expressive “verve” to the score. The singers and musicians playing on period instruments were sweetly in balance and delighted with their stylistic bending of the last notes in a phrase, holding them just under pitch then finally releasing them upward into a shimmering brightness.
Catone in Utica is set in northern Africa, during the final days of Cato the Younger (Catone.) Catone, his daughter, and a few intimates have fled Rome rather than see the capitulation of democracy under the tyranny of Julius Caesar (Cesare.) During the course of events, Cato discovers his daughter is in love with his most vile enemy. Shortly after renouncing her, he has a pivotal meeting with Cesare. But any compromise proves futile, and soon thereafter Catone commits suicide rather than live to see the destruction of his hard-wrought democratic body.
Opera Lafayette has made many emendations to the current mounting, some of them curious, a few wondrous, and several rather troubling. Set, costumes and lighting as well as staging had been minimalized, whether for purely aesthetic reasons or budgetary and rehearsal-time constrictions. The overall effect was returning the production to a concert opera version. To Baroque purists, this might have achieved fewer distractions. For me, it created some dramatic holes and curiously fewer distinctions amongst the characters.
Though staged by the same director as at Glimmerglass, the Emmy-nominated and NAACP Theatre Award winning Tazewell Thompson had not shaped this iteration with the same attention and detail. Singers tended to take turns parking themselves downstage center to sing directly out or to the maestro. Their actions were at times unmotivated or mistimed, and they slowly wandered on and off stage. To my mind, the work had lost its crisp urgency and some of its dramatic potency.
I’ll confess, I missed the sets of John Conklin, his “congealed Armageddon” of an imagined North African scene with its depth and vistas. I was even sadder to have lost the costumes that Sara Jean Tosetti had so artfully created for the Glimmerglass Festival production. The women wore mostly gorgeous evening attire but became more interchangeable. Key men’s costumes were not sufficiently flattering to the players. Someone postulated that Cato’s look was trying to go for a young Italian model, but another, less kindly, suggested that his suit looked more like it was a Men’s Warehouse special.
In any case, the suit did not reinforce Cato’s unblemished purity and obdurate restraint. John Holiday’s brocade evening jacket gave him neither the stature nor the military “jock” excitement that Tosetti achieved at Glimmerglass. In a chamber opera where there are two counter-tenors and two women’s roles, and all four singing in the mezzo soprano range, people in generic evening dress tended to become less distinguishable.
Nonetheless, the singing was exceptionally beautiful. The three men in the cast reprised their roles. Thomas Michael Allen in the title role was even more vocally compelling in this production, lifting the mostly recitative setting of this character’s singing and gaining renewed authority. When he goes after his daughter in the second act, singing that he should have killed her when she was born, we see a man whose philosophy of restraint is undermined when crossed by a member of his own family.
The ending had been changed to one re-created by various librettists after its original opening as more seemly for that period, where Cato’s suicide death is moved offstage. The ending at Glimmerglass with its bathtub suicide had been chilling: the final tableau’s harsh veracity more to a twenty-first audiences taste. But here I understand Brown and company might have chosen the alternative ending to be more authentic to the period.
The new “restored” ending included a quartet singing about “restored” joy that sounded all too tacked on as required censorship. It felt something like pandering to a court audience who needed reassurance of their own inviolable power.
Fascinating overall, however, that the opera in Washington had such resonance with its threat of a deposed dysfunctional democracy. It helped to appreciate that although Cato is in the title, the best arias (and the larger “circus”) go to Cesare.
John Holiday, an extraordinary counter tenor, started out coloring his Caesar in a much more subdued way than my memory of his previous incarnation. But his lovely phrasing of his first aria, “Whenever a gentle breeze caresses you,” beautifully describes the longing for a far away love. Next, he pulled out the stops for the aria, “If you wish to face me on the battlefield,” using the song almost like a gauntlet being thrown down. Holiday’s idiosyncratic vocal attacks here seemed to push his body into the space in front of him and then release in almost a warrior’s yelp. It was a surprising and thrilling sound.
Eric Jurenas returned as Fulvio with an even stronger voice and more beautiful tone. This counter tenor gave Holiday a run for his money and made Vivaldi’s runs seems effortless. His costume that featured long sleeves of ringed fabric and long leather tunic seems the most original and allowed him to assume a level of contemporary stylization that read as comfortable. His voice was smooth, his stage presence poised, and his acting some of the most focused in the evening.
The women were all new to the production. Anna Reinhold played Cato’s daughter Marzia. She lacked the effervescence of what I imagine Marzia to embody but no less pitiable. She managed to convey some of the difficult journey of this character who goes from scorning a suitor to admitting her secret love for her father’s sworn enemy Cesare, being scorned and renounced by her father, to having to bear her father’s intention to die at his own hand.
Clearly, the one that, for many in the audience, knocked the dramatic artistry out of the proverbial ballpark was Julia Dawson. She chose to play the role of Emila, the widow of the murdered Pompeii, as a slinky evil demon – or maybe just desperate – set on revenge for her husband’s death. Dressed in a floor-length emerald-sequined dress, she has something of the Snake Queen about her. Dawson had a supple voice up that created fireworks both above and in the nether dark regions of her voice. Might this strong female character represent the voice that could express the anger and frustration of Cato when his character would not allow it?
Many in the audience clearly loved the way she sunk into deep knee bends as she descended in her runs and took such risks physically, including turning her hands into great claws of tension. Others found her physicality distracting, preferring that her voice might communicate the power of Vivaldi’s score.
Finally, in the chamber opera, Marguerite Krull made a sympathetic Arbace and brought a beautiful warm sound to the pants role. Dramatically, she chose a subdued approach to the role and forewent the fireworks of the gender-bending warrior I had loved when I first saw the opera.
The hard thing to figure in this production was what was intended as an integration of style. The singers seemed to take different approaches. The gestural palette manifested in some, at least, to give a nod to the Baroque plus the frozen tableaux of characters sitting on stage when not singing. But two of the women clomped around on high heels, and their mode seemed more unconventional “voguing.”
In the second act the stage and staging grew even more spare. I suspect that the intention was to make an even clearer connection between the last days of Roman democracy and the way our democracy before our eyes seems to be broken and calling out for a demigod of sorts.
What was never in question was the way these singers never backed off from the tricky da capo structure of Vivaldi’s arias. The repetition in the songs allowed the audience to become ever more attuned and delighted with the music.
Catone in Utica is musically a treasure. The balance in the production between the instruments and the singers was never strained. Brown conducted the orchestra with great sensitivity. The cellos would saw away in passages as needed for the singers then join the violins to show how nimble and virtuoso Vivaldi’s music in this opera is meant to be. The horns gave us that militaristic boost to convey the battlefield of Caesar’s primacy. The sections with the continuo playing proved most harmonious and supported the singers most nuanced ornamentation. Andrew Appel on Harpsichord, Loretta O’Sullivan on Cello, and Michael Leopold on Theorbo and guitar made this magic happen quite simply and gorgeously.
Catone in Utica received two performances at the Kennedy Center, November 28 and 29, 2015.
It performs December 1 at The Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 524 W 59th St, New York, NY. Details and tickets.
Catone in Utica . Music by Antonio Vivaldi . Libretto by Pietro Metatasio . Conducted by Ryan Brown . Stage direction by Tazewell Thompson . Featuring Thomas Michael Allen, John Holiday, Anna Reinhold, Julia Dawson, Eric Jurenas, and Marguerite Krull . Lighting Design: Amith Chandrashakar . Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti . Produced by Opera Lafayette . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.