BWW Review: Vivaldi's CATONE is a 'Hot Mess' - and a Great One from Opera Lafayette

BWW Review: Vivaldi's CATONE is a 'Hot Mess' - and a Great One from Opera Lafayette

BWW Review: Vivaldi's CATONE is a 'Hot Mess' - and a Great One from Opera Lafayette
John Holiday as Caesar and Thomas Michael Allen as Cato in
The Glimmerglass Festival production of Vivaldi's "Catone in Utica."
The pair repeated their roles in Opera Lafayette's production
in New York and Washington, D.C.
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

On paper, Vivaldi's 1737 opera seria CATONE IN UTICA--involving a confrontation between Cato and Caesar--seems a big mess: The music from the first act is missing and musicologists can't agree what the third act should look and sound like, leaving Act II to make or break a performance of the opera.

Lucky for us New Yorkers (and, earlier, Washingtonians), Washington, D.C.'s Opera Lafayette brought us a version that sometimes thrilled us, sometimes tantalized us, but always made us grateful for the performance, fluidly directed by Tazewell Thompson.

Actually, the production--a mostly concert performance held at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre of John Jay College in Manhattan on December 2--started life last summer at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. In that version, however, Cato met a sadder end: an onstage suicide as the original librettist, Pietro Metastasio, had written a decade earlier for a score by Leonardo Vinci. Vivaldi switched things around, "to make the drama shorter and happier," so that the work ended on an up beat.

The happiest thing about the opera, though, is the exciting, undeniably difficult music that has survived and Opera Lafayette's performance featured some singers who were up to the challenges. First and foremost, the confident, young singer John Holiday as a very sympathetic Caesar--a countertenor for those who hate countertenors--who gave a blazing performance. He spun out the ornate lines of gorgeously, his range going from mezzo to soprano without a break, and was completely mesmerizing. His breath control and line were thrilling and enjoyable to hear--which is not always the case with countertenors--particularly in the splashy "Se in campo armato."

The other standout performance came from mezzo Julia Dawson, as Emilia (the widow of Roman emperor Pompey), who was on the sidelines for much of Act II, before springing to life just before the intermission. With perhaps the most difficult music of the evening, she astounded with her range and virtuosity, as she swore vengeance on Caesar for the death of her husband in the florid "Come in vano il mare irato."

The performance also featured a second countertenor, Eric Jurenas, as Fulvio, who stood out in his single aria, "Degli'Elisi dai soggiorno," jumping octaves as if they were second nature to him. Last summer at Glimmerglass, Jurenas sang a different role, Arbace, the intended spouse of Catone's daughter, Marzia (nicely sung here by mezzo Anna Reinhold). In Washington and New York, Arbace was a pants role, portrayed by Marguerite Krull, whose range easily extends from lyric mezzo to soprano, but sounded somewhat small. Finally, there was the Catone of tenor Thomas Michael Allen, who had a commanding stage presence (particularly in the recitatives) but a modestly produced sound.

Hats must go off to the Opera Lafayette Orchestra, under the lithe baton of conductor and artistic director Ryan Brown, which gave a sterling performance of Vivaldi's demanding and rewarding score. Special mention goes to the continuo contributions of Andrew Appel on harpsichord and Michael Leopold on theorbo, and principal cellist Loretta O'Sullivan.

Opera Lafayette, which usually specializes in little known French operas of the 17th and 18th centuries (including last summer's delightful L'EPREUVE VILLAGEOISE), seemed very much at home with Vivaldi. Judging by the results, I hope there's more of it in their future.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.