Vivaldi: Juditha triumphans
Venice Baroque Orchestra, Guildhall Consort, Andrea Marcon
Barbican, 2 November 2016
You can imagine the headlines in today’s gutter press. “Woman seduces man, gets him drunk, then beheads him. Claims God told her to do it”. She would probably spend the rest of her life in a institution for the criminally insane. But in the Bible (or, at least, in the Bible of the Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not the Protestants, who count the Book of Judith as apocryphal, or the Jews), she was hailed as a national heroine who lived to the age of 105. Musically her story inspired Tallis’s Spem in alium, and works by Scarlatti, Mozart and Parry. In art, she inspired the likes of Cranach, Donatello, Caravaggio, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Goya and Klimpt (pictured). She is also the subject matter for Vivaldi’s only surviving oratorio Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernis barbarie, written exactly 300 years ago, in 1716. The story of Judith’s ‘triumph over the barbarians of Holofernes’ would have had a strong contemporary reference to Venetians, whose army had just defeated the Ottoman invaders in Corfu. Judith clearly represents Venice, and the Assyrian general Holofernes, the Ottomans.
Described on the title page of the score as a ‘sacred military oratorio’, the use of five female soloists, an all-female choir might seem unusual, but this was composed for performance by the female pupils of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. Using a glittering array of instrumental colours, it is one of Vivaldi’s most endearing works. Although the militaristic musical elements are strong, not least in the bombastic opening fanfare, Vivaldi also includes many gentler moments, including some sensuous seduction and more genuine love songs from the enemy general Holofernes, who has fallen in love with Judith. In conjunction of many of these moments, he conjures up some glorious sounds from the orchestra, which the excellent Venice Baroque Orchestra took to their heart in this performance.
The impressive group of soloists were Magdalena Kožená as Juditha, Delphine Galou as Holofernes, Ann Hallenberg as Vagaus, Francesca Ascioti as Ozias, and Silke Gaeng as Abra. All sang with conviction and a fine sense of period style, my only slight quibble being with some slightly overdone vocal and facial gestures from Magdalena Kožená: who, incidentally, was wearing an appropriately blood red costume. Ann Hallenberg got the biggest audience applause, but all deserved a similar accolade. The instrumentalists of the Venice Baroque Orchestra were on similarly top form, with some excellent solos on instruments such as soprano chalumeau, viola d’amore, mandolin, violas da gamba, organ, recorders and four theorbos.
Director Andrea Marcon is an outstanding interpreter of this repertoire, and brought his vast experience and technical ability to this excellent performance, sensitively negotiating the line between Vivaldi’s sensuous and bombastic moments.