Juditha triumphans, Antonio Vivaldi’s only surviving oratorio, was composed for spiritual edification rather than the opera house. Yet director Floris Visser’s new production at Dutch National Opera successfully transforms it into a plausible wartime drama. Vivaldi’s iridescent score, a chain of marvellous arias, each with a distinctive instrumental colouring, is in the hands of a talented young cast and the consummate musicianship of the Baroque ensemble La Cetra under their artistic director, Andrea Marcon.

An implausible piece of biblical historical fiction,The Book of Judith has an eminently inspirational heroine. A beautiful widow frees the Jewish town of Bethulia from Assyrian occupation by dining with General Holofernes and cutting off his head when he is three sheets to the wind. Visser beefs up the bare-bones plot in Giacomo Cassetti’s Latin libretto with a Second World War scenario. After the deposition of Mussolini, Holofernes is part of the German invasion bringing Italy under Nazi control. All kinds of things are going on while Juditha, supported by her maid Abra, steels herself to intercede for her compatriots. Resistance fighters, led by Ozias, originally a Jewish priest, are executed. Jews are rounded up for the concentration camps. Holofernes’s men make free with the local women, while he loots precious artworks, including Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1598-99). In the meantime, Vagaus, his devoted aide-de-camp, and (it is hinted) secret admirer, supervises the furnishing of the commandant’s requisitioned residence, a bombed church. Its rubble-circled ruins make up the set, swivelling on a revolving platform. Like the costumes in muted tints, it is stamped with designer Dieuweke van Reij’s understated elegance. Its drawback is the cavernous space that surrounds it, which tended to swallow up voices away from downstage centre.

Vivaldi composed Juditha triumphans in 1716 for the renowned female choir and orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà, the Venetian orphanage where he was music director. Comprising soldiers and other male figures, the Dutch National Opera chorus was mixed. Lagging behind Marcon’s fleet tempo in the opening chorus, they later fell in sync. Not to take anything away from the men, but the finest choral moment was the all-female psalm, “Mundi Rector”, with a sweet solo by soprano Gloria Giurgola, who played a molested woman, a character introduced by Visser. A stellar timbre and great personal beauty make mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez an ideal Juditha. Her singing couldn’t be faulted, but she came across as somewhat detached, until her prayer before the tremendous deed, “Summe astrorum Creator”, when she opened new reserves of temperament and text colouring. Unfortunately, a mishap marred the beheading, with bloody sheets appearing before the sword had touched Holofernes’s neck. As Abra, Polly Leech shored up the scene as she bagged the head and decided what to do with it during the fitful aria “Si fulgida per te”. A bright-voiced mezzo and a fine actress, Leech had blossomed vocally over the course of the evening. In the distressing finale, Juditha refuses to participate in the jubilation as the Nazis are run out of town. Her brave feat has destroyed her purity and fidelity, symbolised earlier by the turtle-dove in the aria “Veni, me sequere fida”, breathtakingly floated by Arquez and a cooing chalumeau solo.

Teresa Iervolino’s Holofernes tottered persuasively as the besotted leader got progressively drunk. Her dark mezzo-soprano, not always even in tone, plunged into luxuriant low notes. Mezzo Vasilisa Berzhanskaya’s Vagaus brandished a spicy, laserlike instrument with astonishing agility. Backward placement rendered her diction cloudy, but she was completely up to that fireball of a revenge aria, “Armatae face, et anguibus”. As Ozias, contralto Francesca Ascioti was intelligible down to the last consonant. Although not the smoothest, her singing was dexterous and she was dramatically lucid. Marcon allowed the soloists to show off their range and dynamic control with tasteful variations in the repeat sections of the arias. In this and every other aspect he delivered an impeccable performance.

His orchestra was in miraculous form from the first bars of the Concerto grosso in D major, RV 562a, which included two stunning solos by concertmaster Eva Saladin. Two movements from this concerto functioned as the Sinfonia, or overture, which is missing from the score. All through the evening the bewitching recorder, oboe and mandolin solos kept stealing attention from the stage. The ripieno playing was just as magical, the whole ensemble breathing as one. Marcon chiselled details with uncanny instinct. Rarely does one hear such perfectly timed recitative accompaniment. The heart-stopping numbers, such as the ingeniously scored “Agitata infido flatu”, just kept on coming. Besides finding Arquez at her most vocally alluring, this aria, in which Juditha compares herself to a swallow tossed about in a gale, showed that La Cetra, like that swallow, retain their gracefulness during the swiftest and most turbulent of flights.