Juditha Triumphans

On Wednesday night to the opening night of Pinchgut Opera‘s performance of this oratorio by Vivaldi.  Although an oratorio, this was realised by Pinchgut as an opera, but in Latin (though tending to fairly Italianate and unchurchified delivery).

This is the only one of 4 known oratoria by Vivaldi to have survived.  It was written for the girls at the Pieta, an orphanage/nunnery.  It seems it was quite the thing in Venice to go to performances given by these unfortunate girls, who would perform from behind a screen.  There is some speculation that the colour of the instrumentation was an attempt to compensate for this invisibility.

Originally all the parts were sung by girls.  In this production Holofernes was played by a counter-tenor/male alto, and the chorus was also beefed up to include men.  That is a little inauthentic, but we wouldn’t want to waste half of Cantillation, the excellent choir which provides Pinchgut with its chorus.

The revelation of the production was the amazing variety of Vivaldi’s orchestration.  The quiet arias were the best for this: there was a turtle-dovish aria voiced by the chalumeau (a precursor to the clarinet); another aria accompanied by just 2 violins and a viola d’amore; the aria with the mandolino (a tiny mandolin).  I am struggling between budgetary restraint and the tantalising prospect of hearing these and many others (including a turbulent aria that seemed to suggest Pissaro in Fidelio) again.

The first of these is:

[2017: that link is no longer available but there is here – the introduction also features as a station promo at present on ABC “Classic” FM – I think from memory featuring Julia Zemiro]

In a nod to contemporary relevance, before going to see Holofernes, Judith strapped on explosives under her bodice.  Yes, its anachronous, but that’s opera.

The plot doesn’t have all that many twists and turns, and there were times in the first act when things seemed to be moving rather slowly, but then the many magic moments started.  It was a memorable evening.  The house was healthily full in all but the top (second) gallery.

Afterword

Frugality won out and I didn’t go on Monday, not so much out of frugality as because the available seats weren’t so good and I didn’t want my memory of the first performance to be overshadowed by an inferior vantage point for the second. Instead I listened to the live broadcast at home. It wasn’t the same, of course and I spent the evening wishing I’d been more extravagant. The close-miking of the singers for the live recording destroyed the balance between them and the instruments, and failed to convey the gleam of often very quiet instruments and the assembled hush of the rapt audience. You can hear the live broadcast until (I presume) Sunday 16 December from this page for ABC Classic FM. The chalumeau aria is at about 48:50 of Act I; the mandolino at 9:15 of Act II. One of my readers may, apropos this, be interested in this aria sung by Juditha (at about 41:55 of Act I) which has the following text:

JUDITHA
Agitata infido flatu
Diu volatu
Vagabundo
Maesta hirundo
It plorando
Boni ignara.
Sed impulsu aurae serenae
Tantae cito oblita poenae
In dilecta
Dulcia tecta
Gaudii ridet haud avara.

This is translated by Natalie Shea as follows:

Tossed about by the fitful wind during its long flight, the vagrant swallow grieves, weeping as it flies, for the good things it has never known. But carried on a fair breeze it soon forgets its sorrows. In the comfort of its soft nest it laughs for joy, desiring nothing more.

I think the good things that Judith has never known are happiness and good food since she has become a widow (she’s just been invited by Holofernes to a feast and, or so he hopes, more). If so, that’s a little odd, since presumably things were happier while her husband was alive. The relevant text is at page 4 or so of the libretto.  I wonder if it was just an opportunity for a little musical pictorialism.

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