Of the many beneficial and valuable morals that can be found in Biblical literature, one of the more educational is that if you’re the leader of an army that has just invaded and/or planning to enslave the native population, it’s not the best idea to have a local lady visitor in your tent without substantial security. The Babylonian general Holofernes was clearly thinking with something other than his head when he allowed Judith, a Hebrew widow, in for some spirited conversation (said head ends up detached from his body).

Magdalena Kožená © Oleg Rostovtsev
Magdalena Kožená
© Oleg Rostovtsev

The Book of Judith, part of what is known to Christians as the Apocrypha – texts that didn’t make the final cut when the Bible was being assembled – proved an inspired choice for Vivaldi in the creation of his sole surviving oratorio, Juditha triumphans. Holofernes and Juditha both have attendants, the steward Vagaus and the handmaiden Abra respectively, but besides the brief appearance of the High Priest, Ozias, and the occasional interjection from the chorus, there’s no-one else on the scene, making for a taut and almost claustrophobic atmosphere. The characters are clearly defined and three-dimensional, welcome from a musical era that often produced vague and insipid protagonists. Vivaldi’s dramatic instincts are spot on throughout the work, and are well-balanced by a gorgeous score. There’s an abundance of lavish obbligati from instruments both common and unusual to create a variety of effects; a particular favourite was the chalumeau (an early clarinet) imitating a turtle dove in “Veni, veni, me sequere fida”.

For a quality performance of this work, Andrea Marcon and his Venice Baroque Orchestra was always likely to be a safe choice; what was remarkable was the uniform excellence of his cast. Magdalena Kožená provided the immediate star factor as our eponymous heroine and the depth of the vocal palette on display was impressive: graceful, briefly seductive and on occasionally gutturally hard and vicious. Notes were held evenly and there was some accomplished floating. Phrasing was long and cool; she tended to be at her best in the more sombre moments, sounding once or twice slightly uncomfortable in moments that called for quick-fire bursts. As Vagaus, Ann Hallenberg gripped the ear every time she sang, launching her smooth mezzo into what were frankly electrifying displays of coloratura. Breath control was superb and there was no sacrifice of volume for quality during the vocal pyrotechnics. Vagaus’ music climaxes in the furious aria “Armatae face, et anguibus” which was whipped and virtually spat out by Hallenberg; one of those edge-of-seat moments that opera lovers treasure.

Delphine Galou’s assumption of Holofernes was a classy piece of singing and her stage manner was easily the most convincing. Hers is a plush, luxurious sound, appealingly shaded in the lower register and with an arching quality at the top. There was no unsteadiness in the voice at all and she showed a nice sense of line, but her poor projection let her performance down; a shame as Galou deserves to be heard. Silke Gäng showed a fresh and full mezzo singing Abra, spurring on her mistress with vibrant phrasing and particularly good articulation.  Our Ozias, Francesca Ascioti, had far too little to sing; Ascioti was on commanding form, slightly too aggressive in places, but she has a voice that is strikingly cavernous at the bottom and the resonant authority there was appropriate for her sacred pronouncements.

The Venice Baroque Orchestra struck an ideal balance between a golden sound and a dramatic pulse; they came across as an ensemble that knew the work backwards and had the resulting confidence under Marcon’s relaxed, but nuanced conducting. Soloists were uniformly excellent, but Francesco Spendolini should be singled out for his tender playing of the chalumeau during the Turtle Dove aria - a perfect accompanist for Kožená. The Guildhall Concert were unsurprisingly well-drilled and made mellifluous contributions on demand.

Juditha is a rare visitor to these shores, but I highly doubt there are many performances abroad with so well-judged a cast and band as this. My only regret is that this performance wasn’t recorded.

****1