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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Cato in Cooperstown

ET IN ARCADIA EGO” is inscribed on one of the trompe l’oeil stones forming the backdrop to Cato’s encampment in north Africa. “I am in Paradise,” the phrase suggests, and it’s an inscription often found on a tomb. Cato has fled after defeat in the battle of Pharsalus, and is pursued by his fellow-Roman and ambitious opponent Caesar.

Photo by Karli Cadel
At this point, these two have accumulated a lot of tumultuous history, so it’s not surprising that we seem to have arrived in medias res as the curtain rises on Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica. As it happens, there’s also an entire first act missing, so the Glimmerglass Festival’s production—the work’s American premiere—gives us a cinematic intro to the six characters and what they’re doing before launching the piece.

The info is projected onto a crimson scrim during the opening Sinfonia (itself taken from Vivaldi’s earlier opera L’Olimpiade) as the cast presents itself in silhouette, and the action takes place against a golden-red ruin behind which is desert and the setting sun, the sky an incongruously lovely Bouchard.

The bloody and the pastoral inform the text as well, as when Arbace, the Prince of Numidia (countertenor Eric Jurenas) advises Cato’s daughter, Marzia (soprano Megan Samarin) why she needs him as her husband: “If the lamb goes to pasture without the shepherd/One day she may go astray/And perhaps there will emerge/From its den or from the woods/Some savage beast/Who will devour her.”

She doesn’t want him–she’s in love with Caesar–and she’s made this quite clear in the recitative that leads to Arbace’s aria. Yet when the aria kicks in, it channels the spirit of Fred Astaire singing “Night and Day” in The Gay Divorcee. Marzia goes from Ginger Rogers resistant to Ginger Rogers coy and, even though we know that this romance isn’t going to work, the staging offers notes of characterization absent from the music and text.

Kudos, therefore, to director Tazewell Thompson, whose Lost in the Stars here three seasons ago and Dialogues of the Carmelites in 2002 were outstanding harbingers of things to come. An old Baroque opera gives him a whole new set of challenges, particularly when it comes to those park-and-bark arias. Some of the cast members are fond of trying to find movement where stillness would work, and Samarin occasionally lapses into petulance, which opera singers never should be allowed to attempt.

But that’s it for my complaints. This was a top-notch performance with extraordinary voices. From Cato’s first recitative, we knew we were in good hands. Tenor Thomas Michael Allen projects so richly, without seeming loud, that I’d swear he was standing three feet away. “I should have slain you at birth” (“Dovea svenarti allora”) he tells his daughter when her love for Caesar is revealed, and Allen colored his superb voice with emotion that made him truly terrifying.

He’s up against a formidable Caesar. John Holiday has a countertenor voice of such unexpected beauty that it’s hard to imagine, from his lovely pledge of love “Se mai senti spirarti sui volto lieve,” that he can turn around a deliver the stirring call to arms “Se in campo armata” with equal conviction.

There’s plenty of duplicity afoot. Pompey’s widow, Emilia (mezzo Sarah Mesko), wants revenge against Caesar, while the general’s own lieutenant, Fulvio (mezzo Allegra De Vita), loves Emilia enough that he might be tempted towards betrayal.

John Conklin’s set added evocative layers to the action, as when an alarmingly outsized moon proved to be just the right scenic touch, when rectangles of Rothko red added color, and when memories of Rome seemed to be sliced out of the backdrop.

Whenever I see the neck of theorbo sticking out of the orchestra pit, my heart leaps with joy. Ryan Brown conducted a reduced Glimmerglass orchestra with Michael Leopold switching between theorbo and Baroque guitar and Chrisopher Devlin on harpsichord, and the rest of the gang dispatching the relentless aria accompaniments with ease.

The reconstruction by Alan Curtis and Alessandro Ciccolini makes a very good case for a first act that borrows tunes from other Vivaldi operas, but I won’t quarrel with the time its omission saves us in the seats. And I greatly applaud another Glimmerglass change, which was to impose the originally intended ending on the piece, in a scene that required no singing, and gave the vocal line from Act One’s “Apri le luce” to a plaintive oboe as our vision of Arcadia did indeed turn into a tomb.

Cato in Utica
Music by Antonio Vivaldi, libretto by Metastasio, directed by Tazewell Thompson, conducted by Ryan Brown, Glimmerglass Festival, Aug. 16.

Metroland Magazine, 20 August 2015

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