Monday, August 31, 2015

Caesar's Clarion Call

VivaldiCatone in Utica
Libretto by Metastasio
August 1, 2015
Glimmerglass Festival

Caesar in love.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
We were initially not so sure we wanted to hit the Glimmerglass Festival as the over four-hour drive upstate scared us a bit. But, three words won us over: Vivaldi and John Holiday. We can never get enough of Vivaldi’s operas, so rarely performed, and we were bewitched by the Operalia-winning countertenor when we discovered him at the Spoleto festival earlier this year. And so we rented a car, booked a B&B and embarked on the most wonderful weekend trip through pristine farmlands and charming lakes, all blissfully off the cell grid. I was surprised by how much the Glimmerglass Opera house perfectly blends with its surroundings, as it really looks like a big barn tucked away by a pond. There was nothing rural about the performance though, and we definitely did not regret the trip upstate to catch it.

Caesar shows us what he's made of.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Though singing not the title role but that of an impetuous young Cesar in love, countertenor John Holiday dominated Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica. He had it all: control, power, musical ability, agile expressivity and a fullness of sound so rarely found in even the best of today’s countertenors. Holiday completely transcends questions of gender when he sings. You don’t think: “Ah, this is a man singing like a woman,” or “Why is Caesar being sung like an effete man?” Holiday is just so transfixing and almost superhuman that it only makes sense for someone with his voice to play the most powerful character of this opera. The angelic sound of his instrument and his virtuosic handling of it carries you away and leaves you wanting for more, without knowing exactly what hit you. Like never before by listening to Holiday I understood why castrati (the closest sound to today’s countertenors) were the rockstars of their time and why they got the best roles.

Catone maneuvers for relevance.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
While Holiday’s Caesar stole the show, the evening’s tragic trajectory belonged to Cato, at least on paper. However, the particular setting of the opera performed here with its highly abbreviated first act, the original of which is not extant, actually configures the story in large part around the betrothal and courtship of the hand of Marzia, Catone’s beautiful daughter. Her father has in mind a politically expedient union with Arbace, chief of the North African Numidian tribe that has sided with him in his treacherous affront to Caesar’s rise. But, ironically enough, Marzia is already in love with none other than her father’s sworn enemy, the great Julius Caesar himself.

Arbace's marriage of political expediency.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Vivaldi’s Catone is the perfect example of the baroque propensity for casting countertenors as young men in love. Both Arbace and Caesar are the two contenders for the hand of the lovely Marzia, despite the waning political influence of her father. The central love triangle of the story is crisscrossed by another pair of lovers – Fulvio, Ceasar’s lieutenant, falls for Pompey’s widow, the stunning and vengeful Emilia (here played by the excellent mezzo Sarah Mesko). Then of course, there is the overarching plotline of the political intrigue between the stoic Cato (the last stubborn bulwark of the republic) and the rising emperor.

Early in Act I we get parallel peacocking seduction arias. Arbace, sung by countertenor Eric Jurenas, is the first to woo his “betrothed.” He pushes himself on his reluctant prey as he sings S’andrà senza pastore. The Numidian prince – whose Mad Max-inspired garb fits his desert lifestyle, it’s post-apocalyptic chic! – is a bit too overbearing and brusque with the object of his affections. Marzia shuns and spurns him and plays hard to get while he chases her around the stage like a wild animal on the hunt, or like a shepherd trying to catch a wayward member of his flock.

Arbace woos his reluctant betrothed.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Caesar’s introductory aria, on the other hand, his parallel song of seduction, was genuinely moving. In Se mai senti spirarti sul volto lieve, he busts out with some major male grandstanding, which forces his beloved Marzia to admire him in all his splendor, rather than force himself on her. She comes to him and he doesn’t have to make the effort to even so much as lean in toward her. In fact, in his vocal preening, posing and posturing, he is so taken with his own perfections that he almost seems to be more in love with himself than with her. And the aria in Holiday’s hands is mellifluous magic, pulling the attention of the house into his orbit, melting everyone around. She fawns over him and is just as taken as we are with his talents and gifts as a singer. This is what the power of song is about. Holiday shows us what a great operatic moment can do. The seduction of the music imbues the narrative with its Orphic power but yet also transcends the narrative. It is like coloring so vividly inside the lines that its force radiates out from it.

Caesar puts on his game face.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
In a change of tone, Caesar’s second big aria, shortly thereafter, is precipitated after a confrontation with Catone who taunts him with threats of war. Guerra mi piace (“I like war”), says a headstrong Catone. E guerra avrai (“and war you’ll have”), retorts the emperor in his fury. A sudden flood of red light washed over the scene, intimating the bloodshed of war. Caesar is seeing blood and so are we. The quip provokes him to launch into his great yelps of war aria, Se in campo armato. He doesn’t sound girly or effeminate at all. Instead, he comes off counter-intuitively as powerful and manly. His voice has an agile power and a dynamic expressivity. Pacing the stage slowly and deliberately, Holiday seemed more regal than boyish. The full bodied way his voice dropped as he prepared each time to launch into his barrage of little yelps, as he moved from a chesty countertenor to his head voice, were unforgettable. They came off as little conniption fits that gave you whiplash of the ear. That night at Glimmerglass we heard the clarion call of Caesar’s imperial revolution.

Catone barks orders at his minions.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
When we signed up for Vivaldi at Glimmerglass this is precisely the kind of musical experience we were looking for: fiery Venetian baroque operatic fireworks. The fact that the bill included John Holiday, one of the big winners at this year’s Operalia competition, was the icing on the cake. He and most of the rest of the cast that featured an exciting mix of young artists (mezzos Megan Samarin as Marzia and Allegra De Vita as Fulvio) and seasoned veterans (tenor Thomas Michael Allen in the title role and mezzo Sarah Mesko as Emilia) pushed Vivaldi’s vocal score to its expressive limit in many key moments. After Holiday, the most impressive singer on stage was Ms. Mesko, who attacked Emilia’s vengeful arias with a fury and passion worth of Vivaldi. 

Emilia and her game face.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
I wish I could say the same for the orchestra. While the singers were fleshing out the ends of their lines with bright full colors and emitting fiery vocal effects into the intimate theater from the stage, there were fewer sparks to be heard from the orchestra pit. What I love about a good Vivaldi score are ferocious strings, especially the violins that demand to be passionately attacked with a Mediterranean animality. Here there were very few Vivaldi fiery Italian flourishes. The orchestra under Ryan Brown’s direction just didn’t seem to rise to the level of the singing. They were tight though slightly academic sounding, more restrained, and more English in disposition than uncontainably Southern European.

I found Tasewell Thompson’s production to be extremely effective in its sophisticated simplicity. The staging presented a brief introduction of each of the characters during the overture. The stage was visible through a translucent scrim and each of the singers in full classical garb strutted out onto the stage one at a time. Their character’s name and a brief description of what they represent was projected onto the scrim to ease us into this world. The costumes were grandiose. The setting was the North African desert in Numidia where Cato has fled. Over the course of the evening an ominous big full moon was alternatively projected on the backdrop along with a portentously setting sun. Gold-encrusted “Roman ruins” (or ruins of the declining Roman republic?) were strewn about in heaps around the stage. An arc du triomphe framed much of the action, as if to signify that the ineluctable march toward empire is under way.

A brighter day is promised in the imperial silhouette.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Another brighter day is promised in the form of a series of incisive projections featured at the rear of John Conklin’s set design. Silhouettes of architectural elements appear against the solemn sunset of the backdrop: a Corinthian column, the outline of the Coliseum as it stands today. The gloaming of the dusky sky is offset by a brighter world. Ironically though, some of the silhouettes are rather ominous, portents of later decline, like the that of the Coliseum already in the ruins as it appears today, which I suppose is a proleptic fast forwarding to the eventual fall of Roman imperial glory altogether. Civilizations rise, and even the greatest fall. Here is the story of one man’s convictions and his attempt to get out of the way of the inexorable storm and surge of the locomotive of Caesar’s imperial project, to whose ineluctable rise even the senate back in Rome has already succumbed.

A daughter grieves.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
And, of course, succumb even Cato does. I was eager to see how Vivaldi or at the very least how this production would treat Cato’s final definitive gesture. Attitudes toward tyranny are at stake in how Cato’s clinging to the moral high road is staged. His is the ultimate study in conviction. Thompson’s production again gives us an abbreviated finale. Foregoing the grand finale choral passage featured in at least one version of the score, Thompson leaves us with what is perhaps the most memorable image of the evening. The lights go up on the final scene to reveal a Cato slumped over in his throne with his back to the audience. His arms hang lifeless and red streamers run from his wrists like streams of crimson blood across the stage on either side. Rather than a final flourish of vocal fireworks, the orchestra gives us a majestic oboe solo that is both haunting and incredibly moving at the same time. Simply magnificent.

Lui & Lei

Marzia ponders her personal political predicament.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel

The Glimmerglass Opera House.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

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