Trip to Amsterdam for a Vivaldi rarity: Juditha Triumphans, oratorio (in Latin!) which is very suited to full staging. The story is biblical: Assyrian forces are defeating the Jewish town of Bethulia; the Jewish widow Juditha asks the Assyrian general Holofernes for a meeting, where she asks for peace. She seduces him, and when he falls asleep she cuts his head off. The Assyrian army is lost without their leader, and Bethulia is spared. This story was the inspiration for many paintings: Caravaggio, Gentileschi, etc. What was the strike of genius of director Floris Visser? But of course! Nazi occupation! When, in the first scene, I saw the women in the chorus with typical 40s hairdos, I felt it coming. And sure enough, Holofernes shows up as a Nazi general. I swear to god, if I see another opera production set in Nazi times, I’m going to throw up on the stage.
Having said this, the narrative was coherent; the story did fit with this idea. But the choice of setting the story during WWII seemed more an aesthetical one than anything else. The Nazi stylish uniforms are very popular with shallow opera directors. Also, the director proceeded to use every trope known to mankind: the raped girl, the PTSD that Juditha suffers after the murder. No cliché went untouched. A revolving set. And, of course, Caravaggio’s painting shows up! Gag me with a spoon.
As a matter of fact, the whole Nazi thing seemed like a trick to show the painting, as the Nazis looted art from all of Europe. So, the painting was part of the spoils of war that Holofernes shows Judith to show off. And she gets the idea of beheading him.
The revolving set shows a church devastated by bombings, where the Nazis set up their headquarters. The locals are not geographically characterized, it could have been any of the countries occupied by the Germans in WWII. The civilians are extremely well dressed; nobody seems to be poor, probably because poor clothing did not fit the director’s aesthetics.
This oratorio was written for the Ospedale della Pietà, which was an orphanage for girls, so there are only female voices: all the characters, male or female, are interpreted by women. In this production the chorus was mixed, with male singers joining the women, but I don’t know how philologically correct this operation is.
The orchestra was spectacular. Andrea Marcon has a very personal Baroque style, enthusiastic, rapturous, Mediterranean. The orchestra La Cetra did an amazing job, many instruments have solos in different arias, and they were uniformly perfect. The theorbos were amazing, just amazing. At the beginning the band was a bit too loud, drowning the singers at times; but, as the evening proceeded, Marcon found a better balance.
And now, to the singers!
It was my first time hearing Gaelle Arquez live, I loved her! Her voice is sooooo smooth and burnished, a wonderful mezzo. Her delivery is always elegant, if anything, a bit too polished. She is also physically very elegant, tall, composed, she looks very good on stage. Her acting was not restrained though, she really looked terrified before the murder, and devastated afterwards. The murder scene was one of the most effective moments: the orchestra built up the tension beautifully, and Arquez perfectly conveyed the intensity of Judith’s feelings. Unfortunately the moment was spoiled by the childish audience, which started giggling during the beheading, and laughing out loud when Judith raised Holofernes’ head by his hair. Idiots.
Holofernes was Teresa Iervolino, my favorite!! She was brilliant. As young as she is, she shows real swagger on stage. The Nazi uniform was not flattering to her, but she still wore it with confidence, and her seduction scene with Arquez was positively steamy hot. Her voice was just wonderful, all the way to the bottom of the range, with marvelous high notes, inventive variations, everything. Her tone is naturally seductive, and the last seduction aria Noli o cara, with the oboe solo, was irresistible. I love her more and more.
Abra, Judith’s confidante, was a very young soprano, Polly Leech. She did great. Her voice was at times drowned by the orchestra, but I took it as a good sign: she’s not forcing. Her soprano is light and bright, with great coloratura, and good scenic presence. A singer to keep an eye on. So is Vasilisa Berzhanskaya, who was singing the part of Vagaus, Holofernes’ attendant, who has some of the more vicious coloratura in the whole piece. She sailed through them with confidence and skill. Finally, I’ll mention contralto Francesca Ascioti, who in the part of the Jewish priest Ozia (turned into the head of the resistance fighters) convinced with a warm, deep voice.
A fantastic evening! Viva Vivaldi!