The title was somewhat a cheeky selection, containing as it does the name of a nearby New York town. However, once that in-joke is acknowledged, the work justifies its festival position by bringing to the stage Metastasio’s poetic depiction of Cato the Younger as quite brilliantly musicalized by Antonio Vivaldi.
The first act score has never been found, so revivals have compensating choices to make as to reconstruction. Alessandro Ciccolini devised one such completion and composed some music for missing passages using Vivaldi concerto themes as inspiration. The finale was wholly instrumental, and worthy of Vivaldi’s intentions. Since much of Vivaldi’s output has been forgotten (or missing), this American premiere was a welcome opportunity to experience a drama that deserves to be performed.
Conductor Ryan Brown coaxed an edgy, rhythmically incisive reading from his accomplished players, whose dramatic commitment made them true collaborators in underpinning the vocalists’ emotional state. The vast majority of the da capo arias range from brisk to brisker and the Maestro showed an unerring hand in accommodating the soloists. When the mood and tempo did relax, Brown let the players luxuriate in meaningful solo flights and he evoked moody atmospheres. The continuo work was meticulous, especially the inventive theorbo work by Michael Leopold.
If there was one breakout, star-making performance in the Festival, it would be the dynamic portrayal of Caesar by counter-tenor John Holiday. As he launched into his first aria you could sense the excitement build in the audience as palpable electricity was generated between stage and audience. We sat up and leaned forward to relish his every melisma, his fierce commitment, his flawless technique and his highly personal, gleaming tone.
It is often difficult for this voice category to offer much variety because of the tonal production demands. But Mr. Holiday’s Caesar-in-love had a very different color and delivery than Caesar-at-war. His ascending war hoops (sort of Vivaldian ho-jo-to-ho’s) were chilling in their vicious impact. The passagework was faultless and always rooted in the drama. It just doesn’t get better than this. The intermission and post-show buzz confirmed that a star was born.
This is not to take anything away from the evening’s other counter-tenor. Young Artist Eric Jurenas offered a completely different sound as Arbace, tightly focused in its delivery of secure, highly musical contributions. He was believable as the sexed up aggressor, and became sympathetic after his romantic rejection.
As Cato’s daughter Marzia, Megan Samarin (another accomplished Young Artist) sports an appealing, warm mezzo, with a slight cover to the delivery. Ms. Samarin commendably throws herself into the drama, but when emoting overtakes her concentration on technique or when she pushes the final syllable of phrases for effect, she can veer slightly off pitch.
Allegra De Vita served the role of Fulvio well, with a gleaming mezzo of great presence and security. Ms. De Vita exuded lots of personality and she had a handsome stage presence. This was the sort of assured performance from a Young Artist that foretells even greater things.
Sarah Mesko’s astonishing range and trip hammer agility on display in Bad-Girl-Emilia’s two murderously difficult arias produced some awesome effects. She pulls a few tricks when she negotiates top notes in rapid runs or at phrase ends by darkening and slightly pulling back. But hey, whatever it takes. This is fiendishly challenging writing. All other times, the even tone is throbbing, glistening, and exciting.
Thomas Michael Allen brought a regal bearing and conscientious commitment to Cato. But his title character did not have the distinctive timbre or emotional investment of his remarkable cast mates. His slender tenor was somewhat dry and, while it found some fire late in the evening, it lacked weight.
The design team has come up with a handsome, inventive, smoothly flowing production.
John Conklin’s gilt, tawny set design featured ancient ruins and conveyed august dignity. A giant arch upstage center reveals stylized projections of a column, or collosseum, or obelisk, or a serene moonlit desert. The fallen pillars and altarpieces that litter stage left and right are richly painted in passionate reds, oranges, rusts, and golds. A Rothko-like red square makes an appearance at the opera’s beginning, and is a recurring symbol that gets flown in at various junctures, in various sizes, and on various fly lines.
This monolithic appearance could suggest a bloody order. Or maybe a bloody wall? Boxed in violent emotions? All I know is it was handsome, nicely textured, and it engaged us by allowing us to “speculate.” The first three acts (played together) are in this handsome unit set. After intermission, act four found the ancient ruins removed, effectively suggesting a clear, open battlefield for Cato and Caesar’s final confrontation. Robert Wierzel’s evocative lighting really came into its glory here as a giant pallid square flew in isolating Emilia front and center, only to turn blood red, trapping the character downstage for her hysterical, stuttering climactic showpiece.
Costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti proves herself a critical partner in identifying the characters with wildly inventive and colorful riffs on traditional period dress. Marzia’s first diaphanous yellow gown is used brilliantly to convey her girlishness, and also her recklessness in loving Caesar. Emilia’s dangerous purple, hooded gown has an ostentatious train and quirky accents. Caesar’s regal blue sums up his stature and his power. Arbace’s vest with its hippie fringe was an apt visual representation of the randy lad.
Wig and Make-up designer Anne Ford-Coates has contributed her usual high quality work the whole season but nowhere more effectively than here. The personalized look for each character was a successful fusion of ancient tradition and contemporary coiffures. Only the bald Cato escaped her magic touch.
Director Tazewell Thompson started the evening with a master stroke as the characters walked one by one into a spot light behind a scrim, upon which was projected their character name and their relationship to the story. Instant understanding! After this effective orientation, Mr. Thompson created beautiful movement, inspired by the dramatic moment, and springing from truthful relationships.
The director had actors use the ruined columns and plinths in all manner of traffic patterns by sitting, reclining, standing upon, circling around, and climbing up and down. The instrumental introductions, interludes and closing bars of arias were anything but clichÈd pacing visualizations. Tazewell invested them with meaningful motion: a playful, child-like game between Arbace and Marzia; an emotion-filled volcanic eruption for Caesar; a cat-like tension for Emilia; a wilting supplication for Marzia; a controlled movement for Cato that explodes into a physically abusive treatment of his daughter. This was an informed, meaningful dramatic realization of the piece.
The best staging moment was arguably the last. Reverting to Vivaldi’s original intent of having Cato commit suicide, a final revelation showed the lifeless Cato splayed in his chair, back to the audience, arms spread, wrists bled dry (thanks to attached red cloths). The rest of the players solemnly paid obeisance to him in character until they evolved into a final tableau as the orchestra exquisitely played an interpolated dirge.
This was a memorable evening laden with marvelous music and emotional import. Utica. It’s worth the trip.
Cast and production information:
Cato: Thomas Michael Allen; Marzia: Megan Samarin; Fulvio: Allegra De Vita; Arbace: Eric Jurenas; Emilia: Sarah Mesko; Caesar: John Holiday; Conductor: Ran Brown; Director: Tazewell Thompson; Choreographer: Anthony Salatino; Set Design: John Conklin; Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Hair and Make-up Design: Anne Ford-Coates.