The restoration of Antonio Vivaldi’s legacy is one of more dramatic turnarounds in 20th century music. The so-called “Red Priest” enjoyed international acclaim throughout much of his life, but his final years were marred by a series of professional missteps during a period of changing tastes. He died penniless, and without a patron.

Thomas Michael Allen (Catone) © Karli Cadel
Thomas Michael Allen (Catone)
© Karli Cadel

Vivaldi’s scores were lost for nearly two centuries, during which time he was regarded mostly as a violin virtuoso. That began to change following the 1926 discovery of the composer’s folios in a Piedmont monastery, when 300 concerti and 19 operas were brought back to light. Today, The Four Seasons may appear on just about every album of “Classical Music’s Greatest Hits”, but Vivaldi's operas remain rarities. The American première of Cato in Utica at the Glimmerglass Festival (located, amusingly, an hour south of Utica, NY) attempted to elevate this little explored corner of Baroque repertoire.

Did it succeed? Partly. Cato scales the heights of the da capo form. But in this production the music was stunted by a lack of dramatic coherence. It had the feel of an outstanding recital – a staging ground for a parade of excellent performers.

Cato’s dramatic shortcomings are mostly features of the score: only the latter two of the opera's three acts remain intact. Rather than reconstructing Act I with a pastiche of Vivaldi’s music, as done by Alan Curtis and others, this production ignored it almost entirely. Audiences were instead greeted with brief written descriptions of a few essential plot points, projected (quite elegantly) onto a scrim while the overture, taken from Vivaldi's 1735 opera L'Olimpiade, played.

This approach worked well at first. The opera’s virtues became evident early on with the young countertenor Eric Jurenas's tidy rendition of the aria “S'andra senza pastore". Although the orchestra had to nudge him along at times, Jurenas still found time to slip in some appealing ornaments.

The opera’s grander moments were yet to come. Two scenes later, Caesar emerged, with the crowning aria “Se mai senti spirarti sul volto”. The few well-known recordings of Cato had Caesar cast as a soprano pants role. At Glimmerglass, the togaed dictator was sung as Vivaldi envisioned, by a second countertenor, John Holiday. Mr Holiday’s voice was a marvel: in texture, range, and brilliance, all with a seemingly invisible passaggio. It seemed he was born to play Caesar. And with the delivery of his first aria and, later, the bellicose “Se in campo armato”, his star was born.

John Holiday (Cesare) and Megan Samarin (Marzia) © Karli Cadel
John Holiday (Cesare) and Megan Samarin (Marzia)
© Karli Cadel

That is not to say that Mr Holiday eclipsed the other principals. Vivaldi’s score is replete with small miracles of vocal writing, any number of which make Cato well worth seeing. Sarah Mesko proved a strong villainess in the role of Emilia, particularly at the close of the Act II aria "Come invano il mare irato". Likewise, Allegra De Vita sang a fervent Fulvio. Megan Samarin’s lightness of tone provided welcome diversity among the other mezzo-soprano voices on stage.

Yet, amid this exquisite showcase of singers, the larger creation began to show signs of strain. Vocal fireworks competed with one another for attention, and the opera’s disjointed style gradually cut away at its expressive force. Even the plot’s central conflict – the reveal of Marzia’s love for Caesar to her father – was impersonal to the point of comedy. Laughter could be heard at various points rippling throughout the audience. (Making it an opera “not so seria”?)

Overall, Cato suffers from scant discourse between its vocalists. Vivaldi compensated for this, somewhat, through creative interplay between voices and orchestra. But after a while, I found myself fatigued by all the solo displays, longing for a quartet, a trio, or better yet, a Handelian duet.

Sarah Mesko (Emilia) © Karli Cadel
Sarah Mesko (Emilia)
© Karli Cadel

Another dramatic shortcoming was Thomas Michael Allen’s creaky depiction of our “hero” Cato. Perhaps it was true to form: in his Life of Cato, Plutarch described a man who, “from his very childhood” possessed a “nature that was inflexible, imperturbable, and altogether steadfast”. If these characteristics are desirable in a political martyr, they are less so in an operatic protagonist.

Vivaldi may have titled his opera after Cato, but the music he wrote suggests that his sympathies lay elsewhere. It is Caesar who gets the work’s great arias, and when Mr Holiday appeared at curtain, the audience sprang to its feet in praise. This was followed by a sense of surprise when it was Cato who came to take the final bow. To paraphrase one of the finer lines of the libretto: “if I love [Caesar], then the universe shares my error.”