Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia 2021 Review: Juditha Triumphans

Sardelli Oversees A Performance of Rare Beauty

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Musacchio, Ianniello e Pasquini)

As part of its 2021-22 concert series the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia brought together an impressive cast which included baroque specialists Vivica Genaux and Ann Hallenberg for a performance of Vivaldi’s only surviving oratorio “Juditha Triumphans,” under the direction of the Vivaldi specialist Federico Maria Sardelli.

Written in 1716 to a libretto by Giacomo Cassetti, the work is a celebratory piece to commemorate Venice’s victories over the Ottoman Turks, and was premiered at Venice’s Chiesa della Pietà in the same year. As a result of Vivaldi’s position at the Ospedale della Pietà, where he taught music to the orphaned girls, the five parts for solo performers were written for the female voice, with each part representing a major protagonist in the conflict. Venice was represented by the heroine Juditha; and the Sultan by Holofernes while Abra stands for the Christian faith; Ozia for the pope; and Vagaus represents a Turkish general.

Unlike the majority of oratorios, “Juditha Triumphans” does not feature a narrator, instead the drama unfolds through the actions of the characters, and thus has a similar dramatic structure and dynamic to an opera. It is a fast-moving and gripping drama centered on war, bravery, murder, and seduction. At its center is Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes, whom she has seduced, enticing him into lowering his guard with wine and the promise of love. It has thus been termed an “oratorio erotico,” with its similarity to Salome and her beheading of John the Baptist being immediately obvious. It is, therefore, equally suited to the stage as much as it is to the concert hall, and in fact, is often presented as a fully costumed drama, although this performance was given as a traditional concert performance.

Being an oratorio in which the singers read from a score, it gave Vivaldi the opportunity to write vocal parts of greater complexity than was the case for his operas, particularly noticeable in the recitative passages and the choral scenes. Also, and again in contrast to his operas, it allowed him to indulge his love for instrumental color, employing a far wider range of instruments than would have been available with a theatre orchestra.

One interesting feature of any performance of “Juditha Triumphans” is the musical director’s interpretative focus, particularly with regard to the balance that is struck between the dramatic and religious aspects of the work. Obviously, it is tempting for directors and singers to move towards the dramatic in order showcase their interpretive skills. After all, which singer would not want to pull out the stops when cutting off Holofernes’ head?

However, it was not the choice of Sardelli, who opted for a more historically informed performance, in which he elicited a rarified and elegant performance from the Orchestra dell’Accademia Barocca di Santa Cecilia and the singers.

There was nothing in the way of overstatement, no grandstanding. It was a performance founded on balance, clarity and technical precision, yet one which, at the same time, successfully uncovered the emotion and dramatic frisson of the work.

Hallenberg Shines As Juditha

Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg produced an exquisitely beautiful performance in the role of Juditha, in which the detail and depth she brought to her interpretation impressed. She set the standard with her first aria “Quocum patriae me ducit amore.” To a delicate orchestral accompaniment, she spun out excellently articulated lines, in which the nobility and determination of her character shone through, as she approached Holofernes inside the enemy camp.

Always attentive to the emotional nuances of the text, she crafted her phrasing with a sensitivity which never overstepped the mark, so that the emotions were finely portrayed, and neatly attuned to Sardelli’s interpretation. There was never a descent into excess. Even the aria “Agitata infido flatu” in which she gave voice to Juditha’s unsettled emotions was sung with restraint, her coloratura was unforced, and her phrasing inflected with carefully placed, light emotional and colorful accents, which never undermined the defining aesthetic.

Of particular note was the effectiveness in which Hallenberg conversed with the solo instruments. In the aria “Quanto magis generosa” she duetted with a viola d’amore, in which the two voices wove a delicately nuanced tapestry, while in “Veni, me sequere fida” she combined with a chalumeau to create a graceful rendition in which the two artists shared a sympathetic musical sensitivity.

In “Transit aetas,” accompanied by the delicate sound of a mandolin, she carried the melody in the voice with such apparent ease and emotional delicacy that it was easy to overlook the technical precision and skill behind her performance.

Genaux’s Detailed Portrait of Holofernes

Vivica Genaux is a performer who knows how to delve into, and to promote the emotional depths of a character. Her performances are usually very expressive, containing colorful, versatile vocal display, which she showed off to good effect in a previous performance of “Juditha Triumphans,” in Vicenza in Lirica in 2020, in the role of Vagaus.

For this performance, however, she was cast in the role of Holofernes which has fewer opportunities for bravura vocal displays. She nevertheless created an excellent impression in the role. Her aria “Non obscura tenebrosa” is a confession of love, which allowed Genaux to show off her versatility with a delicate, seductive rendition, in which she captured Holofernes’ amour perfectly.

Her plaintive aria “Noli o cara te adorantis” also stood out for the way in which she played with the colors of her voice to create rich contrasts. Although there were possibilities for more florid vocal displays, they were not extensive.

The aria “Nil arma, nil bella” provided her with one of the best opportunities, for which she delivered complex embellishments and nicely constructed coloratura passages. Recitatives were energetically an expressively presented, and successfully brought out the full meaning of the text. If there was a minor criticism to be made, it was that she appeared a little too keen to impose herself onto the character.

Rotolo, Ascioti & Hoshina Produce Strong Performances

Holofernes squire, Vagaus was essayed by soprano Giorgia Rotolo who made an excellent impression in the role. Although the part provides the singer with numerous opportunities for indulging in virtuoso vocal displays, she produced a relatively restrained reading which fitted nicely with Sardelli’s overall approach.

Even the bravura aria “Armatae face, et anguibus” was kept in check, although not at the expense of communicating Vagaus’ anger. Nor did it inhibit Rotolo’s opportunity to display her wonderful coloratura and extensive embellishments which she presented with an elegant sheen, rather than with the appearance of a person raging out of control. And her rendition of “Umbrae carae, aurae adoratae” was a delight, in which her voice blended sweetly with the recorders for a beautiful lullaby.

The role of the high priest Ozias was played by contralto Francesca Ascioti. She possesses a darkly colored voice which she employed with an authoritative air that gave her a gravitas which successfully distanced her from the mundane. Her beautifully crafted, well-paced phrasing brought depth to both recitatives and arias.

Her final aria “Guade felix” in which she celebrates Bethulia’s victory was given a rousing presentation in which she showed off her vocal versatility with a short coloratura display, which she immediately followed up with an expressive passage of accompanied recitative.

Soprano Rui Hoshina cast in the role of Juditha’s handmaid, Abra, produced a strong, energetic performance in which she successfully managed to maintain a pleasing balance between vocal beauty and expressivity. She possesses an agile voice with a clear, homogeneous tone, which she employed with skill. Her presentation of the aria “Fulgeat sol frontis decorae” caught the attention with her nuanced phrasing, gentle embellishments and versatile coloratura.

The work has a small but significant role for the chorus, which also frames the performance with an opening and closing aria. Unfortunately, this was the one weak aspect of the performance, although this was not the fault of the Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, nor its chorus master Piero Monti. Thanks to covid regulations the members of the choir were seated at a significant distance from each other, and although the singers sang with energy and feeling, the sound itself did not have the weight associated with a concentrated mass of voices and left the listener feeling a little underwhelmed on occasions.

Overall, this was a performance of rare beauty. Unfortunately, the attendance was very poor, indeed, with possibly only about 30 percent to 40 percent of the seats occupied, although you would not have not have known this from the audience response at the end of the performance, which thundered its appreciation. Sardelli responded by encoring the final chorus, in which the soloist also joined, and such was the enthusiasm even the poor seating arrangements for the chorus could not dampen the strength of their delivery.


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