Vicenza In Lirica 2020 Review: Juditha Triumphans
Vivica Genaux, Sara Mingardo & Caterina Meldolesi Lead Triumphant Opening NightBy Alan Neilson
Now in its eighth year, Vicenza in Lirica under the guidance of Andrea Castello continues to move from strength to strength and is starting to have a clearly defined format, centered on the baroque, with Palladio’s marvelous Teatro Olimpico as its primary venue.
It is supportive of young singers who are cast in the operas but is also able to attract big names, creating both an entertaining mix for the audience and excellent learning opportunities for the young singers. Even the virus, which has devastated summer opera festivals worldwide, did little to dampen the enthusiasm, and many events were able to go ahead, which this year were very much focused on Vivaldi.
His opera “L’Olimpiade” from 1734 was the centerpiece, while a performance of his only extant oratorio, “Juditha Triumphans,” opened the festival.
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. Moreover, the fast-moving and gripping narrative of war, bravery, murder, and seduction is ideally suited for the stage, and is, in fact, often presented as a fully costumed drama, although on this occasion Vicenza in Lirica opted to perform it as a traditional oratorio.
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,” and with both stories taken from the Bible its similarity to Salome and her beheading of John the Baptist is immediately obvious.
Interestingly, the work was written to celebrate Venice’s victories against the Ottoman Turks in 1716, the work being an allegory for the conflict, so that Juditha represents Venice, Holofernes the Sultan, Abra stands for the Christian faith, Ozia for the pope and Vagaus represents a Turkish general, while the city of Bethulia, the city under siege in which Juditha lives, is the church.
The work was written in the same year, 1716, to a libretto by Giacomo Cassetti, and premiered at the Chiesa della Pietà. Owing to Vivladi’s position at the Ospedale della Pietà, where he taught music to the girls, the parts were all written for the female voice. It is structured in two parts, with 14 arias in each, although for this performance there were a number of cuts.
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 in a theatre orchestra.
The cast was a mixture of the experienced and the well-known, the lesser experienced, and even the almost unknown.
In the role of Vagaus was the undoubted star of the show, coloratura mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux. Vagus is a eunuch and the squire to Holofernes, but it is by no means a small role, for it is he who has the misfortune to discover Holofernes’ decapitated body. In what was the most gripping scene of the evening, Genaux’s response to the discovery of the headless body was an emotional explosion: firstly in the powerful and intense recitative, “Jamnon procui ab axe,” in which she allows the horror of the scene to overwhelm her voice, then followed by the aria, “Armatae face, et anguibus” in which she lets loose with a vocal display of rare quality: her coloratura moved rapidly upwards, then downwards, the colors in a constant state of flux, darkening, and lightening as she took in leaps and included sudden dynamic shifts. It was a stunning display, which left the audience looking on in rapt silence.
Yet, Genaux is not about superficial pyrotechnic displays, on the contrary she is fine singing actress who uses her voice with intelligence to define the character. In the aria, “Quamvis ferro, et ensemble gravis,” she presents a quite different interpretation: the rapid coloratura and the versatility were present, but the effect was totally different, there was no sense of horror rather the emotion was one of pride, pride in his leader Holofernes who he sees as a just and good leader. While in the aria, “Umbrae carae, aurae adoratae,” her voice is gentle and delicate with the vocal line gracefully ornamented, in what was a beautifully sung piece.
Holofernes was played by mezzo-soprano/contralto Sara Mingardo. She produced a finely sung and detailed performance, which captured the nature of the enemy commander, which surprisingly is not an unsympathetic one, given that he represents Venice’s enemy, the Sultan! Mingardo’s singing was characterized by excellent vocal control, detailed and carefully crafted phrasing, and vocal flexibility. In her first aria, “Nil arma, nil bella,” in which Holofernes lauds the virtue of courage in war, she produced a nicely articulated reading in which she exhibited her ability to adorn the vocal line with subtle and nuanced inflections, and a pleasing, but simple coloratura.
Throughout the performance, Mingardo was clearly focused on the meaning of the text, so that recitatives were expertly rendered, and the underlying emotions carefully projected. In the seduction scene she displays considerable subtlety in the way she inflected the line with dynamic accents, flashes of colour and emotional emphases, successfully portraying Holofernes’ ardent desire.
The title role of Juditha was placed in the hands of the 24-year-old soprano Caterina Meldolesi. That she was to an extent dwarfed by the performances of Vivica Genaux and Sara Mingardo was neither surprising nor a major criticism: in fact, there was plenty to admire in Meldolesi’s performance.
She possesses a securely grounded voice with a pleasing tone which she used with ability to successfully characterise the role. In her opening aria, “Quocum Patriae me ducit amore,” she immediately showed off her fine vocal control, delicate phrasing and the appealing timbre of her voice. In the aria, “Veni me sequele fida,” accompanied by the fluttering sound of a flute, her sensitive connection to the text enabled her to produced one of the most charmingly delivered pieces of the evening.
Later, while Holofernes sleeps, Juditha takes his sword and beheads him, which she gives voice to in the aria, “In somno profundo” and the in following accompanied recitative, “Impii, indigni Tiranni” in which she produced an expressive performance, accenting and coloring the voice with skill, and displaying versatility. On the negative side she did allow herself to be too easily overwhelmed by the small orchestra, most notably in the rhythmically vibrant aria, “Agitata infido flauto,” and her characterization of Juditha could in certain parts have been more strongly drawn.
Nevertheless, for a young singer, it was a fine performance and displayed great potential.
Juditha’s loyal servant Abra was played by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Gaetani. She gave an expressive performance, delivering her recitatives and arias with confidence. She displayed a pleasing degree of vocal flexibility, accenting and colouring the vocal line intelligently, and dispatching her modest coloraturas with a flourish, although on occasions the voice sounded a little tight.
The role of the priestess Ozias is relatively small, restricted to a couple of passages of recitative and two arias in the second part. This did not, however, prevent contralto Alessandra Visentin from making a strong impression. She has a dark, sensuous voice suggestive of the deep mysterious truths possessed by the priestess. Yet, it is one she able to color with even deeper shadings, which when added to her secure vocal technique and her strong stage presence, allowed her to develop a fully fleshed-out character.
The chorus was the Schola San Rocco, which although only few in number, was able to fill the theatre with their voices. The ensemble gave a vibrant, engaging account, which was topped by their drunken revelry, “Plena nectare non mero” in which it swayed and sang, accompanied by renaissance bagpipes.
The cast was splendidly supported by Francesco Erle and the small Ensemble Barocco del Festival Vicenza in Lirica. Consisting of only eight members, including Erle himself, conducting from the Cembalo, the ensemble created a sound world with many interesting textures; many members played more than one instrument. It produced an elegant, intimate, and rhythmically versatile performance, one which was also dramatically focused. Moreover, there were numerous solo opportunities that allowed individual members to showcase their talents.
It was a musical performance of high quality and an excellent opening to the festival. The audience showed its approval with a long-deserved ovation at the close.