By Antonio Vivaldi
libretto by Iacapo Cassetti
Dec 5, 8, 9 & 10 2007
Our first foray into Vivaldi's stage works was his military oratorio Juditha Triumphans - the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, and his eventual beheading. Written for the girls' orphanage where Vivaldi was music master, this is a truly sublime (and bloodthirsty!) work.
The orchestra contains many amazing and beautiful instruments - baroque clarinets, a gamba consort, a viola d'amore, chalumeau, four theorbos and even a baroque mandolin! The music crosses the full range from the simplicity and beauty of Veni, me sequere fida to the fireworks and passion of Armatae face et anguibus.
The work was written to be performed by the girls of the orphanage, but in our production we opted to cast David Walker as the tyrant Holofernes. Sparks flew between him and Sally-Anne Russell as Juditha. Enjoy this magnificent work.
Cast & Crew
Attilio Cremonesi conductor
Mark Gaal director
Hamish Peters designer
Bernie Tan-Hays lighting designer
Benjamin Bayl assistant conductor
Sean Hall assistant director
Maree Kanowski stage manager
Dick Weight props master/artist
"Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofernes stretched out on the bed, for he was overcome with wine … She went up to the post at the end of the bed, above Holofernes' head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to the bed and took hold of the hair of his head, and said: "Give me strength this day, O Lord God of Israel!" And she struck his neck twice with all her might, and severed his head from his body.”
The Book of Judith 13, 9
Although he is thought of today as an instrumental composer, in his own time Vivaldi was one of the most successful vocal composers in Italy. He claimed to have written over ninety operas and he also composed a considerable amount of sacred vocal music, most of it for the Pio ospedale della pietà, one of four ospedali (orphanages) in Venice run by the church where girls “were trained solely to excel in music”, and where Vivaldi was violin teacher and sometimes music director during much of his career. Under his guidance the Pietà’s all-female orchestra became one of the finest and most versatile ensembles in all of Italy and its fame spread throughout Europe. It became a major tourist attraction; no traveller to Venice left without hearing it. An English traveller wrote in 1722: “Every Sunday and holiday there is a performance of music in the chapels of these hospitals [ospedali], vocal and instrumental, performed by the young women of the place, who are set in a gallery above and, though not professed, are hid from any distinct view of those below by a lattice of ironwork. The organ parts, as well as those of the other instruments are all performed by the young women. ... Their performance is surprisingly good ... and this is all the more amusing since their persons are concealed from view.”
Vivaldi is known to have composed four oratorios, but Juditha is the only one to survive. Juditha was described as a “sacred military oratorio”, and was first performed in Venice at the Pietà in November 1716. The Old Testament story of Judith, a Jewish widow, beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes was a favourite subject for composers and artists, and the heroine’s courage and virtue made it an apposite choice for a work to be performed by young women. Oratorios, many of them based on stories of biblical heroines, had been performed at the Pietà from 1690, and the girls sang all parts, including the male roles. The subject matter also had political significance: it was intended by the librettist, Venetian poet Giacomo Cassetti, as an allegory of Venice’s recent victory over the Ottoman Empire at the siege of Corfu, an outpost vitally important to Venice’s presence in the Adriatic Sea. The oratorio’s full title, Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernis barbarie (Judith triumphs over Holofernes’ barbarians), underscores the meaning of the allegory, in which Judith represents Venice.
In Italy at this time, an oratorio was conceived as a large-scale concerted vocal work, musically similar to an opera, but with two major differences in its subject matter and mode of performance: its narrative was always based on a Biblical story, the devotional aspects of the plot being highlighted, and it was typically presented in concert and not staged. Italian oratorios of this period were performed in church and were usually in two parts, separated by a sermon or a break for congregation/audience refreshments. Visitors to the Pietà sometimes commented disparagingly that church services there were treated more like concerts so, perhaps to counteract this impression and legitimise the ‘sacred’ nature of the oratorios performed at the Ospedali, their texts were required to be in Latin, not Italian.
The musical structure of an early eighteenth century Italian oratorio, like that of an opera of the same period, was made up of a mixture of recitative (dialogue sections in a style half-way between speech and song) and set-piece da capo arias, with minimal use of ensembles and choruses. Juditha conforms to this model in general terms, but with some interesting variations on the usual conventions: in both opera and oratorio, recitative was the main vehicle for conveying dialogue and for propelling the narrative, while the arias allowed characters to pause and reflect on the action. Unusually in Juditha, however, some of the arias advance the plot, for example Vagaus’ aria informing Holofernes about the arrival of Juditha, and another in which he orders the General’s servants to prepare a banquet. Vivaldi’s recitatives in Juditha, too, are often harmonically daring. Like the arias, they convey the drama intensely in music, perhaps to make up for the lack of scenery and action in the original unstaged performances, and because of the Latin text which not all the audience would have been able to follow in detail.
Despite its all-female original cast, Juditha follows the casting conventions of late Baroque opera, with first and second male and female roles. Judith, a mature woman, and the male roles of Holofernes and the priest Ozias were composed for contraltos [in this production Holofernes is sung by a counter-tenor]. The part of Judith’s servant Abra is set slightly higher to convey that she is younger and unmarried. Vagaus, Holofernes’ steward, is a eunuch in the oratorio (although not in the Biblical story), and his part is written for a soprano. Thus, the vocal writing is mostly confined within a fairly narrow range, Vivaldi seemingly saving most of his ingenuity for the instrumentation. From the point of view of vocal writing one of the most interesting arias is “Armate face”, the spectacular vengeance aria Vagaus sings when he discovers the murdered Holofernes. There are no ensembles at all for the principal singers. The chorus, which in the original performances would also have been made up entirely of girls and women, alternately represents Assyrian soldiers or people of Bethulia. What their part lacks in quantity (there are only six choruses in the entire work) is made up for in quality, as they sing one of the most beautiful pieces in the whole oratorio, the mystical prayer which ends Part I.
Vivaldi was particularly renowned for his love of instrumental colour, and the enormous variety of the instruments amassed by the Pietà clearly fired his imagination in orchestrating Juditha. The Pietà was known for its early adoption of new instruments and playing techniques: according to the French diarist Charles de Brosse, who heard the musicians of the Pietà in 1739, “they sing like angels and play the violin, the flute, the organ, the oboe, the cello and the bassoon; in short there is no instrument, however great it may be, that can daunt them”. For Juditha Vivaldi used every instrument available to him, some of them particularly exotic. The variety of instrumentation throughout the score serves as a means of characterisation, necessary at the Pietà where the performers would have been barely visible behind grilles draped with gauze, and to convey drama and meaning in a religious work where emotions were implied rather than explicit. The score requires recorders, oboes, clarinets, four theorbos, organ, trumpets, timpani, soprano chalumeau, viola d’amore, and a consort of viole all’inglese (viols) as well as the customary strings and continuo.
The military pomp of the opening chorus’ trumpets and drums would have immediately reminded the 1716 audience of Venice’s recent victory over the Turks and the allegorical nature of what they were about to hear. The overture has been lost, but it almost certainly would have contained very similar instrumentation. For this performance the Concerto in D major “con molti strumenti” (with many instruments), RV562a, with horns, oboes and timpani will be used in its place. Oboes are used to suggest Juditha’s beauty in “O quam vaga” (How charmingly resplendent) for Vagaus and chorus in Part I, and they signify sexual desire in Holofernes’ aria “Noli ò cara” (Dearest creature), which is scored for two oboes and organ only. Four theorbos suggest the bustle of servants preparing the banquet in Vagaus’ aria “O servi volate”. The aria in which Judith asks Holofernes for peace, intending that he fall in love with her (“Quanto magis generosa”), suggests this erotic sub-text through a sinuous vocal line and the use of a solo viola d’amore, an instrument described by Leopold Mozart (father of Wolfgang Amadeus) as “a special kind of violin that sounds lovely in the stillness of the night”. A delicate mandolin accompanies Juditha’s musings on the transitory nature of life in “Transit aetas”, and a consort of five viole dall’inglese provide an other-worldly accompaniment to Juditha’s recitative and aria “In somno profundo”, where she stands over the sleeping Holofernes, steeling herself to do the fateful deed.
Juditha contains some wonderful examples of word painting (the use of a musical gesture to depict the literal meaning of a word). When Juditha sings of the swallow buffeted by the wind in the aria “Agitata infido flatu”, the futile fluttering of wings is represented by repeated fast semiquavers, and a falling chromatic line in voice and violins represents the fierce storm. In her lovely aria “Veni, veni”, the turtledove to which she likens herself can be heard in the accompanying chalumeau, a predecessor of the clarinet. In a further layer of meaning, eighteenth century audiences would have known that a turtledove was thought to remain faithful even after the death of its partner, and would have read this as an allusion to Juditha’s steadfast character, while the repeated notes in the strings convey Juditha’s nervousness at the ordeal she has set for herself.
© Lynne Murray & Alan Maddox 2007
Holofernes, the Assyrian general, and his army are besieging the town of Bethulia. Holofernes exhorts his soliders to honour and glory through battle. Vaugus, Holofernes’ captain, imparts the news that a lovely and noble lady of Bethulia is approaching asking for Holofernes. Holofernes takes this as a sign that the Bethulians want to beg for their survival. Judith, with her maid Abra, asks for safe passage as a messenger of peace. Vaugus and the soldiers re-assure her that Holofernes would not harm one as beautiful as her.
Holofernes is dazzled by Judith’s beauty; Judith asks for mercy and justice telling Holofernes that clemency for her people will be nobler than their defeat. Holofernes, deeply smitten with Juditha, promises and end to the siege in the name of his love for her. He invites her to a banquet to celebrate this love, and commands Vaugus to prepare it. Vaugus invites Abra to the banquet, and Abra, nervous but faithful, tells Juditha to come away. Juditha tells her that she is her most trusted companion and to trust and follow her.
The young men and women of Bethulia offer ask God to keep Judith safe, and that her strength of purpose be undimished.
Ozias, high priest of Bethulia, tells of his vision of the fall of Holofernes. He prays for the destruction of the enemy, and for Judith’s safe return.
The banquet is served to Judith and Holofernes, who ardently professes his love for her. Judith tries to calm his ardour, and Holofernes drinks many toasts to her, eventually falling into a drunken sleep. Judith and Abra call his servants, and retire to a nearby space. Vaugus helps Holofernes to his bedchamber, and – assuming that Judith would like to be alone with him – leaves quickly. Judith asks Abra to leave and to seal the tent, and allow no-one inside. Using his own sword, and in the name of God, Judith cuts off Holofernes’ head which she gives to Abra to put in a bag and carry while they leave the camp quickly. Abra offers thanks to God for the defeat of Holofernes.
As dawn breaks Vaugus returns to Holofernes’ tent and finds his headless body, and realises that the battle is lost. She vows vengeance for the murder.
As Judith returns to Bethulia at sunrise Ozias and the Bethulians gives thanks for the great victory, and hail Judith - beautiful and undefeated.
From this distance, Vivaldi’s music is more interesting than the story of his life. Perhaps we know more about his music and perhaps there is more to discover about his life.
He left about seven hundred and fifty musical works, most of which only came to light over the past seventy years. Others are still being found.
Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born on 4 March 1678 in Venice then a rich, though declining, republic. His father decided that he should have a musical career and that the Church was the best place to develop that. He began his training for the priesthood in 1693 when he was 15 and was ordained in 1703. We are told that he was known as “Il Prete Rosso” because of his red hair, though the few portraits we have show him in a wig.
In the year he was ordained Vivaldi became a violin teacher at the orphanage for girls the Ospedale della Pieta. The Pieta had an excellent choir and orchestra, drawn from the girls and young women living there. Vivaldi taught violin and composed sonatas, concertos and church music. The public paid for the musical performances but could not see the singers and players, who were behind the screen.
By the second decade of the 18th century, opera had become hugely popular in Italy. Vivaldi composed his first opera Ottone in Villa in 1713 and it was performed in a theatre in Vicenza. It was a moderate success and over the next few years he wrote Orlando Finto Pazzo (1714), Orlando Furiosa (1714) and Arsilda Regina di Ponto (1716) as well as several that have been lost (or perhaps, not yet found).
Juditha Triumphans was commissioned by the Pieta in 1716 and performed by the girls as an oratorio. It was commissioned to celebrate a victory of Venice over the Turks. Venice, with great help from the Hapsburg Empire, had defended Corfu but in the subsequent Treaty of Passarowitz Venice ceded important territory to Austria. In the end, it was not really an event to celebrate.
In 1717 or 1718 Vivaldi left Venice and took a position at the court in Mantua, then part of the Austrian Empire. He kept a relationship with the Pietà though, and was paid to compose two concerti a month and to rehearse the orchestra from time to time.
Vivaldi spent three years in Mantua and wrote several operas. In 1720 the Empress died in Vienna and all theatres in the Empire were closed. Vivaldi returned to Venice and the Pietà. In 1721 he was in Milan and in 1722 in Rome. Operas were produced in both these cities but they have been lost.
In 1725 in Amsterdam a collection of 12 concerti by Vivaldi, his Opus 8, was published under the title Il cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione. The first four works in the collection were The Four Seasons, which have become, probably, the best known and most played compositions from the baroque repertoire.
By this time Vivaldi was at the height of his powers and fame. He wrote a cantata for the wedding in 1725 of Louis XV of France to the Polish Princess Maria.
In 1730 Vivaldi was in Vienna and Prague, where the opera Farnace was produced. Vienna was as lively a musical city as it is now: it had a Venetian opera company that, between 1724 and 1734, presented sixty operas. Not a lot is known about Vivaldi’s life during the 1730s. He was certainly prolific, concentrating mostly on opera. We do know that in 1735 the opera Griselda was performed in Venice’s Teatro San Samuele, from which Vivaldi had up until then been excluded.
Vivaldi’s popularity weakened in the late 1730s and Venice was losing its prosperity. Vivaldi struggled to make money from his operas. The interest of Charles VI in Vivaldi’s music made Vienna attractive and Vivaldi went there in May 1740. However in October the Emperor died leaving no male heir. This lead to the War of Austrian Succession. Vivaldi and opera were not first priories for Charles’s daughter Maria Theresa so his career did not flourish. He continued to sell manuscripts to support himself but, it seems, composed nothing new while in Vienna.
In July 1741 Vivaldi died of innerlicher brand, literally “internal fire”. He was buried as a pauper in the Hospital Cemetery (now site of Hotel Sacher) and (perhaps) a nine year-old Joseph Haydn sang in the funeral service in Stephansdom.
Sources and further reading:
Vivaldi: Voice of the Baroque - H C Robbins Landon
Vivaldi: The Red Priest of Venice - Karl Heller
Judith (Sally-Anne Russell) tells her servant Abra to trust her, likening herself to a turtle dove. Accompanied by the chalumeau this is one of the most beautiful of arias.
Sally-Anne Russell, Orchestra of the Antipodes, Attilio Cremonesi conductor.
The young women in Bethulia pray for Judith, and her safe return from battle.
Cantillation, Orchestra of the Antipodes, Attilio Cremonesi conductor.
Vagaus (Fiona Campbell) discovers the dead body of Holofernes. She swears vengeance on Judith and all of her people.
Fiona Campbell, Orchestra of the Antipodes, Attilio Cremonesi conductor.