For the sake of completeness, here’s a brief and belated reaction to Juditha Triumphans, which I previewed last week. The production surpassed even my very high expectations. As commenter John Greenfield noted, the sets were not lavish, but I thought the use of scaffolding cleverly exploited the ample vertical space, given that the horizontal was in short supply. Taking into account the costumes and staging as a whole, the inescapable parallels between ancient and present Middle Eastern politics were faced up to and handled pretty well. Anyway, Spartan sets are part of the charm of low-budget opera. You make up for it by dazzling your audience with the music (as they evidently managed with John).
I don’t have much to add to the other reviews on the web. In fact I disagree with Harriet Cunningham that ‘there was pleasure but few surprises in the da capo arias and short, punchy choruses…’ On the contrary, the music is of a sustained quality that is really surprising for such a little known work. From about midway through the first act onwards, there is barely a boring passage in it, and there are perhaps half a dozen really first rate arias, including the three I linked to in my preview. This is not to mention the recitatives, which are as beautiful as those of Monteverdi, who invented the device.
However, I do agree with the reviewer’s next comment that ‘what set this score apart was the orchestration’. (But why does she have to call it a ‘veritable menagerie of timbres’, suggesting honking and mooing, which is exactly the opposite of her point?) Each of these period instruments has a warm and evocative sound in its own right, and Vivaldi (with the help of the scholars who interpreted his manuscripts) combined them with great art and flair — he is in the first tier of baroque composers as far as orchestration goes. It also needs to be pointed out that the musicians themselves in this type of production are anything but passive technicians. Anna MacDonald, the orchestra’s leader, explained in this ABC RN program about the making of the production that members of a baroque ensemble generally approach the work with much more curiosity, scholarship, and ideas of their own than members of a modern orchestra, who tend to just do what they’re told.
I agree even more emphatically with Ms Cunningham’s contention that mezzosoprano Fiona Campbell, in the part of Holofernes’ aide Vagaus, ‘stole the show’. Eliza Eggler calls Campbell ‘a singer of outstanding ability’. She has no trouble with the technically demanding ‘Armatae face’ (sizzling virtuosity is Murray Black’s phrase), but her version conveys sorrow, unlike Cecilia Bartoli’s, which was pure rage. The interpretation of the role was interesting in itself. Vagaus was originally written as a devoted eunuch, but Campbell played her as a woman, in love with her master but apparently out of contention on account of a crippled leg (at least, that was my interpretation). This worked well, and gave a extra poignancy to her best aria (and I’m agreeing with Ms Egger again), the ravishingly beautiful Umbrae carae which you can hear here performed by Roberta Invernizzi. She sings this as she makes arrangements for Judith to spend the night in Holofernes’ quarters.