Magical ‘Juditha’ Opens Boston Baroque Season

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Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack sang the title role in Vivaldi's 'Juditha Triumphans' with Boston Baroque. (Photos by Kathy Wittman)
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack sang the title role in Vivaldi’s ‘Juditha triumphans’ with Boston Baroque.
(Performance photos by Kathy Wittman)
By Marvin J. Ward

BOSTON – Boston Baroque opened its 2015-16 season, its 43rd,  to a nearly full house Oct. 23 with a superb performance of  Vivaldi’s infrequently heard oratorio Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernis barbarie (Judith triumphant after overcoming the barbarity of Holofernes).

Martin Pearlman, right, and cast take bows.
Martin Pearlman, right, and ‘Juditha triumphans’ cast take bows.

Vivaldi wrote at least four oratorios, but the entirely autograph score, dated 1716, of Juditha triumphans is the only one that remains; the other three are known only by mentions in contemporary texts and the extant libretto for one of them. Juditha triumphans, set to Giacomo Cassetti’s Latin text, was written for the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, and perhaps first given that year at a performance attended by the electoral prince of Saxony. The first modern performance was in September 1941 at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena.

For Boston Baroque, the title role was taken by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, with soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad as both Judith’s maid Abra and the high priest Ozias. Mezzo-soprano Leah Wool was Holofernes (a general in Nebuchadnezzar’s army), and soprano Amanda Forsythe was his servant Vagaus, both wearing pant suits. All gave excellent and satisfying performances, with Forsythe eliciting particularly enthusiastic applause after Vagaus’ aria near the end of the work calling for revenge.

The Ospedale della Pietà was not truly an orphanage in our sense; its wards were girls left there by their parents who did not want or could not afford to raise them. Beyond physical care, education was a major focus, and the learning of Latin was an important part of that as was training in music. The Pietà had a reputation across Europe for the quality of the fruits of this endeavor.

A 1723 painting of Vivaldi by Anonimo Bolognese.
A 1723 portrait of Vivaldi by François Morellon de La Cave.

All parts were written for female singers, so we have the inverse of the castrati situation, with girls and women singing adult male roles, some of which lay in the lower bass register, and with their sung lines sounding an octave above what was played as written by the continuo instruments. There were likely enough talented young women under Vivaldi’s tutelage to muster at least 40 musicians, including some capable of playing exotic instruments such as the salmoè and the viole all’inglese, along with singers including five soloists who were also Pietà wards.

This story is not familiar to us today because the Book of Judith has been consigned to the Apocrypha in modern times, but it was among the standard Old Testament books in the Vulgate Bible, and used for over 20 oratorios in Italy between 1621 and 1716. There are numerous representations of it in art, both paintings and sculptures, among them two by Gustav Klimt in 1901 and 1909, mostly depictions of Judith holding Holofernes’ head. Cassetti included this synopsis, following the list of characters, as translated in Riccordi’s 2008 critical edition, edited by Michael Talbot:

Thomas Carroll played salmoè, an early woodwind instrument.
Thomas Carroll played the chalumeau, an early woodwind instrument.

“Stirred into action by the fervor of the priest Ozias, noble Judith, fortified by prayers and fasting and clad in a cloak, made her way swiftly through the ranks of soldiers and won the love of the barbarian general. After supper, when drowsiness and the effects of wine, thanks to divine clemency, had driven Holofernes into a stupor, she manfully cut off his head with his own sword, and Bethulia (the city) triumphed, with rejoicing, over its fierce enemy.”

Vivaldi’s oratorio used the story as an allegory for the war of Venice and the Hapsburgs against the Ottoman Turks that began in 1714 and ended in 1718, with the Hapsburgs ultimately benefiting more than Venice from the final victory. The work may have been composed after the victory of the Venetians over the Turks in the battle for Corfu in August 1716.

Missing from the score is the customary opening sinfonia; it is uncertain if one ever existed because no known instrumental work by Vivaldi seems to be a natural companion for this work in content, key signature, or style. It is not impossible that he wanted to open with the surprise of a choral number in the midst of action following the mere 12 bars of fanfare-like instrumental music featuring trumpets, timpani, strings, and oboes. The first two instruments disappear immediately thereafter to reappear only for the concluding victory chorus, whose music became the unofficial national anthem of Venice.

William Bauer was the soloist on viola d'amore.
William Bauer was the soloist on viola d’amore.

Boston Baroque founding director Martin Pearlman chose to plunge right into the work as it appears in the score, and used a chorus of 21 with an orchestra of 30, with some musicians doubling, playing second instruments, as may well have been the case at the Ospedale della Pietà; it was well balanced and well suited to the acoustics of New England Conservatory’s 1903 Jordan Hall.

The most interesting and unusual feature of the work is its use of the exotic instruments as obbligato counterpoint to the solo arias, with no instrument being used for more than one. Vivaldi chose each one for its tone and suitability to the music in order to create a unique aura and sound world reflecting the mood of the text.

Thus, the soft and sweet viola d’amore, played here by William Bauer, accompanies Juditha’s aria sung to Holofernes about the quality of mercy. And the chalumeau, played magnificently by Thomas Carroll, provides obbligato against her aria, sung to Abra, in which she mentions a turtle dove, whose call the instrument evokes better than any other ever could. Vivaldi’s score calls for a pair of Baroque clarinets, played gloriously by Carroll and Elise Bonhivert, to accompany the chorus’ number celebrating the nascent “love” between Juditha and Holofernes in Part II.

The Baroque mandolin, plucked by Michael Leopold, accompanied Juditha’s aria on the transitory nature of life, which also featured pizzicato violins with mutes made of lead, as specified in the score. Most of the individual musicians playing these solos moved to the front of the stage to be next to the singers, which lent the performances a special intimacy.

Magical is probably not a word one would expect a reviewer to use in describing a performance of a work based on a biblical story about a decapitation. Yet this was the effect not only of Vivaldi’s music but also of the sensibilities of Pearlman and his musicians and singers. While the story may not exactly enchant, the music most certainly does: it is glorious and amazingly varied, indeed the most exquisitely nuanced oratorio I’ve ever heard.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December 2009.