After the decapitation

Fiona Campbell

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.

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marcelproust
13 years ago

If you are quick you can listen to the broadcast at ABC Classic FM – see link on my page or look for it yourself. Only till 16 or 17 /12 though. As ever, the broadcast shows the techical standard no to be quite so high as remembered in the flesh, and the close miking of the voices leaves the instrumentation a bit in the shade, but it’s a start. I am afraid it shows that Cecilia’s technical equipment is still way ahead of Fiona’s.

James Farrell
13 years ago

Thanks for the tip, mp. I agree that instruemnts don’t come through. I enjoyed your review, and would have commntented to that effect, except that the last time I tried to comment on your blog the comment went to moderation, never to be released.

marcelproust
13 years ago

Can’t work out why yr comment disappeared: all comments except the most spamiferous are gratefully received!

marcelproust
13 years ago

PS: Fiona’s Umbrae carae at about 24:30 of Act II compares very favourably with Roberta Invernizzi’s version. It’s a bit faster, but doesn’t feel rushed.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

James

I am glad you liked it. You are correct that they used space extremely efficiently. Very clever production on a shoestring. One disappointment was the actual decapitation. Call me ghoulish, but I love my operatic decapitations, and felt a bit short-changed with this one. Nothing like Opera Australia’s production of Salome, for example! :)

But I do disagree with you on “the inescapable parallels between ancient and present Middle Eastern politics.” I found the dressing of Holofornes’ soldiers all in black, complete with tea-cosie’s on their heads very distracting. On the hand hand, they looked like bouncers outside Oxford Street bars. OTOH, they looked like PLO gunman assassinating Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. If this was the aim to try and draw some historical parallels, it was way out of step with the actual story, which is basically about the heroine as conniving, ruthless, and sexy little minx! :)

To suggest a parallel between the truly abominable imperial policies of the Assyrians and the brave dissent by subject peoples to the west – in this case Judah – to the modern middle east, is historically-inaccurate. Recall that Vivaldi wrote this following the first successful European repulsion of the ever-westward expansionism of the Ottoman Muslims by Venice at the beginning of the 18th century. This is extremely important to maintain as far too many westerners today have been brainwashed into thinking that in historical tensions between Europe and the Msulim world, it is the Europeans who have been the “baddy” imperialists, when the opposite is the case.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Ten-year-old Francis was pretty disappointed with the decapitation too. Not that he doesn’t appreciate the finer points of baroque orchestration, but he was looking forward to that particular bit.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the Assyrians stood for the Ottomans, though I’ve seen my share of anti-Turk fortresses. But it makes sense.