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Concert Review: Her Terrible, Swift Sword

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Juditha Triumphans triumphs at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: Her Terrible, Swift Sword

Judith and Holofernes by Valentin de Bolougne.  National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta, Malta

The music of Antonio Vivaldi was forgotten for centuries. When he was rediscovered in the 20th century, he rapidly emerged as one of the greatest composers of Renaissance Venice. The father of the multi-movement violin concerto, he was also a teacher of music, the creator of 94 operas and (at least) four oratorios. On Tuesday night, Carnegie Hall resounded with its first performance of his lone surviving oratorio, Juditha Triumphans.
Vivaldi wrote his oratorios as instructional works to be performed by the students at the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage where the composer (an ordained priest) taught music. That meant that they are performed with an all-female cast. Juditha Triumphans recounts the story of the death of the Babylonian warrior Holofernes at the hands of the Hebrew widow Judith. It features soprano and contralto singers in the five solo parts and a women's chorus providing commentary on the action.
Vivaldi's oratorio is sung in Latin but otherwise provides much of the textbook later adopted by baroque composers like Cavalli and Handel. Arias are in the da capo form, with musical ideas stated twice and elaborated upon during the repetition. The work has no duets or ensembles, but consists of alternating viewpoints from the different characters, with the Jews (Juditha, her servant Abra on one side of the stage and the Babylonians (Holofernes and his servant Vaguas) on the other.
As Juditha, contralto Delphine Galou impressed with her air of piety and stage presence. Singing music that ranged from martial "revenge" arias to crooning lullabies, Ms. Galou showed pin-point vocal control and fearless traversal of her register. Her vocal writing is curiously naked at times, singing "Quanto magis generosa" accompanied only by viola d'amore and her Act III lullaby ("Vivat in pace")  with a lone mandolin and a single pizzicato violin. Her character does a slow burn through the first act, finally seizing her opportunity (and Holofernes' sword) and decapitating her enemy at the opera's climax.
Mezzo Mary-Ellen Nesi did not appear in travesty as Holofernes, but her aquiline features, regal bearing and potent singing gave depth and breadth to the role of the hard-partying Babylonian general. She was at her best right before Holofernes met his fate, suitably creepy in two arias ("Nox obscura tenebrosa" and  "Noli, o cara,")  that attempt to seduce Juditha. Ms. Nesi drew laughs from the crowd as the warrior imbibed, lifting a glass to the chorus as they sang an 18th century precursor to a Verdi brindisi.
In supporting roles, mezzos Silke Gäng and Ann Hallenberg stunned the audience, particularly in their reaction to Holofernes' death. Ms. Gäng had the gruesome job of accepting the (invisible) head of the victim, in a triumphant aria that proves the only operatic adage: the higher and more florid your vocal line, the crazier your character is. Ms. Hallenberg was equally impassioned as she found the body, drawing shouts and applause from the house. Finally, contralto Francesca Ascioti made the most of her two brief arias as Ozias, and sang with bright and pleasing tone.
Tuesday night's performance at Carnegie featured the women's choral ensemble TENET and the Venice Baroque Orchestra under the direction of its founder Andrea Marcon. The orchestra featured harpsichord, small organ, lute and long-necked theorbos in addition to winds and strings. Brass slide trumpets and small kettledrums provided military accentuation to the work's opening and close, as Judith's bravery was brought full circle to reflect the glory of Venice in its long struggle to remain independent against the encroaching forces of the Ottoman Empire.

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