Correction: An earlier headline on this review misspelled the name of the opera “Catone in Utica.” This version has been updated.
Opera Lafayette presented one of the highlights of the Washington musical season so far at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night. Since its founding here in 1995, by conductor and violinist Ryan Brown, Opera Lafayette has not only taken root but flourished in Washington’s not always welcoming cultural climate. In a departure from the company’s widely admired explorations of unusual French repertory, they dived headlong Saturday into Venetian opera with “Catone in Utica,” Antonio Vivaldi’s 1737 setting of a libretto by Metastasio. The result was dramatically compelling and musically thrilling.
The opera unfolds during the culmination of the civil wars that ended the Roman Republic, as Julius Caesar moves toward Utica in northern Africa and confrontation with Cato, the last holdout against Rome’s new dictator. Because this is baroque opera, plot complications abound. But the deft and economical stage direction of Tazewell Thompson, originally conceived for this past summer’s Glimmerglass Festival, in New York, credibly clarified those complications and propelled the drama forward with ease.
Brown is not a conductor who imposes himself on the music. He simply is the music, and his musicians follow him with a unanimity that is a joy to watch.
One of the basic building blocks of baroque opera is the da capo aria, which requires a character to sing a text, then move on to a contrasting middle section, before returning to the first text sung again in its entirety with embellishment. Handel’s “Messiah,” for instance, is full of da capo arias. For modern sensibilities attuned to the fast pace of film, video and television, the convention can become tedious. To Brown’s credit, none of Vivaldi’s “back to the top” arias seemed dull or repetitive but emerged as an expansion and amplification of the emotional state set out at the beginning.
Brown has the ability to discern which particular details of shape and texture will most vividly characterize a mood, throwing open the doors to great variety in his music-making. He holds the singers confidently aloft through his grasp of the music’s content. His partners in this delicate task were the superb continuo group, cellist Loretta O’Sullivan, Michael Leopold on theorbo and guitar, and harpsichordist Andrew Appel.
Vivaldi’s operas demand virtuosity of the singers at least on par with that required of violinists in his concertos. The cast was overall quite strong, with Thomas Michael Allen’s imposing presence in the title role. Julia Dawson’s portrayal of Emilia, the revenge-crazed widow of Pompey, was vocally impressive, though her tendency to mug became distracting. Eric Jurenas brought dimension and conviction to the countertenor role of Fulvio. Anna Reinhold’s understated characterization of Marzia, Cato’s loyal daughter who is also in love with Caesar, built through the evening and proved deeply touching.
Had it been possible to steal a show of the length and complexity of “Catone,” the 30-year-old countertenor from near Houston, John Holiday, who sang Caesar, would have done so. Holiday has it all going. His voice is powerful and agile and has an immense range, with seamless registers top to bottom. He is able to project majesty, rage, ambiguity or tenderness with ease and authority. His production is natural and healthy, his Italian diction impeccable. His voice is almost ravishingly beautiful: He is a musician of rare gifts and cultivation. The clincher is that every syllable that Holiday sings sounds straight from the heart. Given the opportunity, this is certainly a talent that will grow in interesting and unexpected ways. But what we heard Saturday night is already more than enough to be grateful for.
Rucker is a freelance writer.