Catone in Utica had its premiere at the Teatro Filarmonico of Verona in May 1737. It sets one of Metastasio's earliest librettos, and one of his few dramatic works that has a tragic ending. The drama concerns the last confrontation between Cato, a defender of Roman liberty, and Caesar, who has just become supreme dictator. For his text, Metastasio drew on historical accounts of these last days of Cato from Plutarch's Vitae, Appian's Historiae, and Cassio Dio's Historiarum.

This review is for the performance of Saturday, 28 November, 2015, in the Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

Conductor: Ryan Brown
Director: Tazewell Thompson

Cast

Catone: Thomas Michael Allen
Cesare: John Holiday
Marzia: Anna Reinhold
Emilia: Julia Dawson
Fulvio: Eric Jurenas
Arbace: Marguerite Krull

The program notes by Ryan Brown accompanying the performance indicate that Opera Lafayette's production was "inspired" by the production from the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival - itself under the direction of WNO Director Francesca Zambello. Ryan Brown also conducted the Glimmerglass Catone performances.

Interested in the connections between the two productions, I looked up a review of last summer's Catone in Utica. The review talks about the same Director Tazewell Thompson taking a straightfoward approach - "Utica was Utica, the Romans were Roman." That review also says that Thompson, working in collaboration with the choreographer, devised a lively stage business that distracted from the opera's stasis. I mention this bit of history since last night's performance instead took a far cheaper route: performers were dressed in evening clothes in place of costumes, the stage in the first act was bare save a pair of abstract collapsed columns; in the second act - the stage was bare; there was no backdrop. Instead of distracting from the opera's stasis, Opera Lafayette's production embraced it. In addition, Opera Lafayette deployed several of the same performers: Thomas Michael Allen reprised the role of Catone, the up and coming countertenor John Holiday sang Cesare and countertenor Eric Jurenas sang Fulvio instead of last night's pants role of Arbace.

So, Catone in Utica, seemingly very close in intention to Glimmerglass's production was presented instead with singers singing their recitatives, punctuated by a series of de capo arias. The singing was of Opera Lafayette's usual high caliber, though Thomas Michael Allen's Catone was kind of a pale character, prone to grand poses, perhaps because his singing was not very interesting, especially when compared with the performances of his colleagues.

The two countertenors were the stars of the evening, especially John Holiday's Cesare whose every aria was met with resounding Bravos from the audience in the rather intimate Terrace Theater (seats 513). I had seen Holiday sing the Sorceress in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in Los Angeles a year ago and he impressed me then as he did last night. Eric Jurenas' Fulvio, a much smaller role, also met with strong audience approval.

The roles of Marzia (Anna Reinhold) and Emilia (Julia Dawson) both were strongly cast and well sung. Both were compelling performers - impressive in the otherwise barebones staging. The small pants role of Arbace (Marguerite Krull) was also well sung and impressive - there were no weak links in last evening's performance.

Finally, I am fascinated by Ryan Brown's decision to stage the opera as more of a semi concert performance rather than one of his more typical lavish productions that I am accustomed to. Whether he thought the opera, considering that stasis is stasis, would be as well-served without the costumes and sets that might have been available from Glimmerglass or was trying to save money, I can't say. I am also enormously impressed with the richness of operatic offerings opera lovers are blessed with here in Washington. In the last week, we have had a strong production of Philip Glass's Appomattox, a concert performance of the rarely performed (and personal favorite of your reviewer) Semiramide by Rossini and another rarity in last night's Catone in Utica. Who can ask for more?

Opera Lafayette returns in February with Pasiello's Une Education Manquee.