Review: Vivaldi’s ‘Juditha’ Triumphs Again with Venice Baroque Orchestra at Carnegie
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, February 9, 2017
To paraphrase one of Miss Austen’s heroines, we presume to know Antonio Vivaldi very well; but as my great-uncle Olin, late of Langdale, Alabama, used to say, we don’t know squat.
These thoughts arise from Vivaldi’s little-known Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernis barbarie (Judith Triumphing over the Heathen Tyrant Holofernes), subtitled “A Sacred Military Oratorio, for use in times of war, to be sung by young ladies, and played in places of worship,” which was performed on February 7, at a time of world-wide turmoil, by a stellar assembly of young ladies (and gentlemen), in Carnegie Hall, as the latest installment in the Hall’s festival La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic, which continues through February 21.
Let’s cut to the chase: this is a great masterpiece that confirms Vivaldi as a melodist on a par with Mozart, a harmonic thinker as fresh and daring as Haydn, a master of orchestration on a level with Berlioz, and a musical dramatist in a league all his own. The libretto, by Giacomo Cassetti, is tight and tingling, a suspense-thriller closely based on the business-end of the Book of Judith. Vivaldi’s setting follows suit, with one dazzling number after another driven forward by recitatives of extraordinary eloquence and power. Almost nothing happens, but that’s the point: in 1716 Venice, Cassetti and Vivaldi could have assumed that, as with Greek tragedy, their audience knew the outcome before the show began, so all the drama was in the approach, and there Cassetti and Vivaldi showed absolute mastery, turning the screws ever so delicately, with subtle feints, exquisite double-meanings, and fell intentions cloaked in the most gorgeous of fabrics, but with none of the usual Baroque frou-frou—Judith sticks relentlessly to its single, simple plot, and there’s not a note in it that isn’t theatrically essential and emotionally true.
The performance was terrific. Again, let’s cut to the chase: Andrea Marcon is a great conductor of this kind of theatrical music, and his Venice Baroque Orchestra is right there with him, completely involved with every cell in their bodies. The five soloists, comprising a virtual international who’s-who of Baroque-music specialists, were all very fine, both musically and dramatically: it was a special pleasure to see them practice historically accurate theatrical manners so beautifully, occasionally stepping out of the frame to acknowledge a burst of applause or to credit a colleague, but never enough to break character or to shatter the mood.
The only problems were in the presentation. Carnegie Hall is vastly larger than any room Vivaldi could have imagined for an oratorio—in fact, Carnegie’s main auditorium by itself is larger than the entire building Vivaldi worked in, including offices, dormitories, and store-rooms—and it presented exceptional difficulties for Judith. The room’s extraordinary 120-foot height means that sound from the foot of the stage goes straight upstairs and stays there, so that soloists sound great in the balcony, but anyone singing in a middle range has trouble projecting to the main floor. Thus, because Judith’s entire cast of characters consists of mezzos and contraltos, most of the concerted numbers were almost incomprehensible to a large part of the audience, and a lot of Vivaldi’s stunningly poetic coloratura had to be taken on faith. (Friends seated upstairs tell me that it was all brilliant from their perspective.) The printed program provided none of the Latin text and only the sketchiest indication of who the characters were and what was going on, and most of that was buried deep in program-notes primarily concerned with musical detail. There were supertitles in English, but by themselves they provided little orientation, because the piece has no narration and the characters almost never call one another by name. To make matters worse, the concert was scheduled to begin an hour earlier than usual—normally a tip-off that you’re in for a Götterdämmerung’s-worth of da capo arias—and then started nearly fifteen minutes late, without explanation, after the audience began to protest.
With La bohème, none of this might have mattered; but with an unfamiliar work to a Latin text, based on a story that even the program-notes admitted is not universally familiar, it was nearly fatal, and you could understand the mass defection at intermission. This was a shame, because the performers, some of whom seemed faintly off kilter in the first part, were uniformly on fire in the second, which contains some of Vivaldi’s finest work, including two magnificent framing-arias for the priest Ozias; a sublime air for Judith, accompanied only by a tiny mandolin, with faint touches of harmony provided by a violin held like a guitar and plucked; Judith’s spine-chilling aria just before the murder, accompanied by a quartet of gambas that ground and churned with barely suppressed anxiety; and a revenge-aria to beat the band by Holofernes’s aide-de-camp Vagaus (the wonderful Ann Hallenberg).
Those who stayed to the end—and, ironically, the actual running-time was less than two-and-a-half hours, and felt even shorter—stood up and cheered, lustily and at length, for just about everyone, and rightly so. There was whistling and stamping for cellist Massimo Raccanelli Zaborra, whose continuo-playing nearly constituted a sixth character, for Mirko Arnone, a poet of the mandolin, and for Francesco Spendolini, who wasn’t having the best of nights on the chalumeau but who “used that,” as they say in the theatre, to make the line “I, too, lament like the turtledove” almost heartbreaking. My favorite, though, was Daniele Caminiti, at the downstage end of the spectacular theorbo-line, who kept moving with the music and loving it, every single note. It was the perfect metaphor for the evening, and for this group: they love their hometown boy, they know what a great piece he’s written, and they do it very, very well indeed.
But don’t take my word for it: treat yourself to this tape of their 2009 performance at the Concertgebuow, subtitled in Dutch. If your Dutch is as lousy as mine, you may want to click here for the Latin text and a thoughtful parallel English translation.
Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernis barbarie (Judith Triumphing over the Heathen Tyrant Holofernes), presented in concert at Carnegie Hall on February 7, 2017. Part of the ‘La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic’ festival series. The Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon, music director and conductor. Delphine Galou, contralto (Juditha), Mary-Ellen Nesi, mezzo-soprano (Holofernes), Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano (Vagaus), Francesca Ascioti, contralto (Ozias), Silke Gäng, mezzo-soprano (Abra) with TENET, Jolle Greenleaf, Artistic Director.
Cover: Delphine Galou as Juditha and Andrea Marcon conducting the Venice Baroque Orchestra in ‘Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernis barbarie’ at Carnegie Hall; photo: Chris Lee.