Vicenza in Lirica 2021 Review: Betulia Liberata
A Young Cast Successfully Brings The Young Mozart’s Oratorio To LifeBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Francesco Dalla Pozza)
Vicenza in Lirica opened last season’s program with a successful performance of Vivaldi’s oratorio “Juditha Triumphans,” a story from the book of Judith contained in the Apocrypha. The city of Bethulia is surrounded by its Assyrian enemies, and its leaders are too frightened to react. Judith, therefore, takes matters into her own hands. She sneaks into the enemy camp and seduces Holofernes, the Assyrian leader, and then murders him by cutting off his head. His death gives the Israelites strength, and they defeat their enemies. It is a fine tale, one tailor-made to capture the public imagination.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Vivaldi has not been the only composer to set the story as an oratorio. The librettist Metastasio wrote his version entitled “Betulia Liberata” in 1734, which at least 30 composers have set to music, including the 15-year-old Mozart in 1771. And it was Mozart’s “Betulia Liberata” with which Vicenza in Lirica decided to open this year’s program.
The Perfect Venue
The venue, as for most of the festival events, was Andrea’s Palladio’s stunning Teatro Olimpico, with its fixed set, designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi, which has been in place since the theater opened in 1585. For this performance, the orchestra and soloists were placed on the stage in front of the set, with the chorus situated in the pit. The audience is seated in a semi-circular auditorium, on steeply raked steps surrounded by classical statues and columns.
A Young, Talented Cast
The company’s Artistic Director Andrea Castello has termed the theme for the festival “L’Opera è Giovane” and in that spirit brought together a relatively young, but talented cast for the performance, supported by the Coro Iris Ensemble and the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto under the musical direction of Marco Comin.
Contralto Alessandra Visentin, who possesses an alluring, distinctive voice that is able to draw in the listener, was cast as Giuditta. It is a role packed with opportunities for displaying a contralto’s talent, with extensive passages of recitatives and two attractive arias. Her first aria “Del pari infeconda” in which Giuditta encourages the people to have faith in God is a light, attractive piece, which Visentin’s wonderfully dark-colored palette, gentle phrasing, and easy coloratura brought splendidly to life. The second aria “Prigionier, che fa ritorno” was less successful, mainly because she was unable to impose herself upon the orchestra. And although she still captured the attention with the beauty of her voice, she was also a little tentative in expressing her emotions, which could have been more expansive. However, she dealt well with the demanding amount of recitative which she delivered with the necessary level of expressivity, in which she again made excellent use of the darker colors from her palette.
In the role of Ozia was an impressive Nile Senatore. He describes his voice as a tenore contraltino, a tenor which is able to sustain a high tessitura. There was much to admire in his performance, especially his willingness to take risks which, more often than not, elevated the level of his presentation. Even in his first aria “D’ogni colpa la colpa maggiore” he was taking audacious leaps, delivering exciting coloraturas and fashioning imaginative and delicate embellishments. Moreover, none of it was done for pure display, rather it was all intelligently developed to heighten the expressive quality of his singing, and it was never heavy-handed, everything was done with a degree of subtlety to ensure the delicacy of his phrasing was not disrupted. The aria “Se Dio veder tu vuoi” was wonderfully expressed, in which his nuanced phrasing, his delicate caressing of the words, and the way he wove coloraturas of sweet delicacy and complexity were a delight. At other times, however, and particularly for the recitatives, he was capable of unleashing full-blooded outbursts. Did he push the voice too far on occasions? Certainly, but the cost was a small price to pay for such a thoughtful and successful performance.
Soprano Paola Leoci was parted as the noblewoman Amital. She produced a performance that grew throughout the evening. Whereas in her first aria “Non hai cor, se in mezzo a questi” she displayed considerable vocal strength, in which her vocal agility and piercing top notes impressed, her final aria “Con troppo rea vità” was on a much higher level. Having doubted the Lord, she implores Him to show mercy. Not only was her vocal flexibility, and brilliant upper register once again on display, but she also brought considerable nuance and emotional sensitivity to her rendition in which her phrasing was beautifully molded to fit the text. She also showed ability in delivering expressively crafted recitatives.
Patrizio La Placa was cast as Achior, who has been sent to Betulia to die with its inhabitants. He possesses a pleasingly warm, clear, and endearing baritone, which he used to craft neatly rendered recitatives. His aria “Te solo adoro” was nicely delivered, displaying his sensitive phrasing, precise coloratura, and the depth and fullness of his voice. However, the aria “Terribile d’aspetto,” which can act as a showcase for a baritone, passed by with insufficient impact. To energetic orchestral accompaniment, including vibrant trumpets he is given the opportunity to unleash his passion, his anger, but unfortunately, La Placa’s rage often disappeared beneath the orchestral tide.
In last year’s production of “Juditha Triumphans” soprano Caterina Meldolesi, singing alongside Vivica Genaux and Sara Mingardo, made an excellent impression as Guiditta. This time she was cast as Cabri and performed well. She possesses a strong, secure, and agile voice, and easily coped with even the loudest orchestral passages. Her single aria “Ma qual virtù non cede” was expressively and confidently rendered, allowing her to display her vocal agility and her ability to coat her singing with emotional intensity. Recitatives were clear and expressive.
Mezzo-soprano Véronique Valdès was cast as Carmi. She produced a strong, animated reading in what was a role of limited opportunities, accenting the voice with urgency and emotion, which successfully conjured up the sense of excitement and terror. Unlike the rest of the cast, she decided to bring a greater degree of physicality to her performance, striding towards the center of the stage, and gesticulating almost wildly. Unfortunately, it was quite out of character with the rest of the production and came over as il-matched. In a different presentation, it may well have succeeded.
The chorus under the direction of Marina Malavasi produced a lively and rhythmically vibrant sound, which was fully attuned with the soloists and orchestra and was instrumental in bringing the oratorio to a fulfilling and exciting conclusion.
Comin’s Dramatic Presentation, But…
Comin’s musical direction was a full-blooded reading, which captured the dramatic nature of the piece, although never at the expense of the delicate contrasts. The playing was always precise, yet founded on the rich vitality of Mozart’s score. Whereas the balance amongst the orchestra was excellent, with each section clearly audible and given their correct prominence, the same cannot be said for Comin’s attention to the balance between the soloists and orchestra, which on certain occasions appeared to be almost non-existent: soloists’ voices were prone to either disappear or completely overshadowed the orchestra.
Overall, however, It was a fine performance, from what was a relatively young cast, albeit not without experience. So well done to Vicenza in Lirica for having faith in the talent and ability of the young singers, and for providing them with the opportunity to show their worth.