The tragedy of the Roman statesman Cato, who lived from 95 to 46 B.C. and went down in the history of Ancient Rome as the “father of the fatherland”, is one of the subjects most frequently set to music in the baroque period. In the city of Utica in northern Africa, the strict Republican Cato and the dictator Julius Caesar encounter each other. In spite of his overwhelming military superiority, Caesar tries to win over Cato as his friend. But Cato refuses to give up his principles, despite Caesar’s willingness to compromise. The historical Cato committed suicide following Caesar’s victory in the civil war. This was too much for audiences in Vivaldi’s day, so the composer has Cato surrender completely and remain alive.
The 59-year-old Vivaldi set the libretto by the well-known Pietro Metastasio to music for the 1737 carnival season in Verona and conducted the premiere of Catone in Utica in the Teatro Filarmonico in that city, and probably the five subsequent performances as well, with the singer Anna Girò performing on stage. Writing from Verona, Vivaldi said, “We had only six performances and our calculations seem to show that we have not made a loss; on the contrary, should God favour us to the end, a profit is quite certain, and possibly no small one.” He expressed the hope that, “A similar opera could meet with much approval in Ferrara, too.” But this was not to be: the archbishop of Ferrara refused to allow Vivaldi to enter the city, because, “I am a priest who does not say mass, and because I have an amicizia with the singer Girò,” wrote Vivaldi.