Numerous recordings and stage performances in the last decade have demonstrated that Antonio Vivaldi’s vocal works have a distinctive lyrical and dramatic power that is matched only by a superior musical quality. Last season, the always enterprising Ensemble Caprice had given Vivaldi’s fascinating opera Motezuma its Montreal première and on Saturday night, co-artistic directors, Mathias Maute and Sophie Larivière presented his only surviving oratorio, Juditha Triumphans, for the first time in Montreal.
For the oratorio’s subject Vivaldi had dipped into the Book of Judith and chosen the story of the virtuous Judith who had delivered her city of Bethulia from the clutches of the King of Babylon’s evil commander, Holofernes. The oratorio was composed to celebrate Venice’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in July 1716, and allowed the Venetians to easily identify with Judith while associating Holofernes with the Turks. The work, subtitled a Sacred Military Oratorio, was created in November 1716 at the girls’s orphanage the Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi was music director. Not only were the musicians residents of the institution, but so too were the singers. Vivaldi cast two mezzos in the roles of the antagonists, Judith and Holofernes, and two sopranos in the other solo roles of Holofernes’ eunuch Vagaus and Judith’s confidante Abra.
Juditha Triumphans most resembles in its structure and form an Italian Baroque opera of the period. Though it possesses a Latin libretto, the oratorio retains a dizzying array of da capo arias (including obligatory arie di furia and aria di spianato), recitatives and associated choruses that characterize the operatic genre. Where the work reveals an unexpected richness is in the sophistication of its musical score and the beauty and originality of many of its arias. Juditha’s esoteric aria “Transit aetas”, for example, not only has a pizzicato string accompaniment but a mandolin obbligato, while the integration of a gorgeous choral component gives Vagaus’ aria “O servi, volate” an innovative and appropriately touching dimension. Juditha Triumphans also gives the lie to the still common criticism that Vivaldi wrote in a routine fashion, basically composing the same work in a multitude of ways. One of the major revelations of the oratorio is its singular musical atmosphere and efficiency. Especially impressive is the way Vivaldi builds to the work’s ultimate climax. Juditha’s breathtaking aria “In sommo profundo” is followed by Abra’s equally effective “Si fulgida per te” and Vagaus’ magnificently virtuoso “Armatae face” in a veritable crescendo of dramatic efficacy.
Caprice’s performance of the work was musically convincing and stylistically impressive. Maute led his troops with commendable verve and vivacity. His conducting underscored the lyrical opulence, harmonic underpinning and dramatic contrasts (both internal and structural) of the work. His reading was most notable however for its rhythmic energy and natural pacing – and above all for his absolute commitment to the work and to the performers. The ensemble and solo playing was often exemplary – especially the contributions of Larivière (flute and recorder) and Matthew Jennejohn (oboe and recorder) – and never less than distinguished.
As he had done several seasons ago when performing Vivaldi’s Gloria, Maute decided to respect the original performing conditions at the Pietà and cast four young female singers in the solo parts while also integrating them into the eight-voice chorus. Though occasionally over-parted, all the soloists demonstrated commendable but often contrasting attributes. Maude Brunet’s warm and attractive mezzo admirably rendered the lyrical aspects of Juditha’s character but lacked the expressive palette, presence and broadness of sound to project more than the most cursory aspects of this complex character. Charlotte Cumberbirch’s contribution as Holofernes was noteworthy primarily for excellent musicianship and crisp diction but was vocally too uneven to offer any dramatic stature to her character. The sopranos were an exercise in contrasts: Hélène Brunet’s Abra was vocally alluring and musical in conception but also dramatically opaque and inhabited by several stylistic ticks that undermined a most promising performance. Samantha Louis-Jean was dramatically and scenically compelling. Vocally her performance was strangely inconsistent. While the virtuoso elements of “Armatae face” were impressively negoticated, she had a tendency to swallow vowels and of losing vocal line, focus and resonance.
Yet precisely because of the circumstances and spirit of the performance and the convincing, comfortable and comforting acoustics of the beautiful Salle Bourgie, it was all too easy to understand the rapturous acclaim that greeted this masterpiece not only in Venice in 1716 but in Montreal in 2014.