Think of Antonio Vivaldi, and the brilliant violinist and prolific composer of sonatas and concertos for violin and other solo instruments most likely comes to mind. Yet Vivaldi was also an important composer of vocal music: some 21 operas, over three dozen secular cantatas, and a substantial number of sacred works have survived. While serving as violin master at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice he managed to pursue a successful career as an opera violinist and as opera composer and impresario. Although two of Vivaldi’s four oratorios were intended for performance by the capable musicians of the Ospedale, only one has survived. Juditha triumphans celebrates the three-hundredth anniversary of its first performance at the Pietà with a staged production on January 21st at 8 pm and January 22nd at 3 pm at the Longy School of Music, Cambridge. The production, presented jointly by the Longy Early Music Department and the period ensemble Eudaimonia, is co-directed by Vivian Montgomery, harpsichordist, and Julia McKenzie, violinist.
As recounted in the apochryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful Jewish widow made her way into the Assyrian camp, lured the enemy general Holofernes, plied him with wine until he fell asleep, then seized his sword and cut off his head before he could attack her virtue. Not only was the sensational tale a favorite among painters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but, as detailed in an informative article on Vivaldi’s Juditha by co-director Vivian Montgomery, some thirty-five oratorio settings in Italy preceded and followed Vivaldi’s. For Italians, the story of Judith came to represent female strength and determination. It also carried political overtones, in which the beleaguered Jews represented the valiant Christians in their ongoing battle against the heathen Turks. To celebrate the recent victories of the Hapsburg armies over the Ottoman Turks at Petervardino and Passarowitz in Serbia, Juditha was conceived as a “sacred military oratorio,” but the libretto in Latin by Giacomo Cassetti takes the story into the operatic realm of melodramma profano. The traditional role of narrator in Italian oratorio is absent in his Juditha. Instead, the plot is advanced through character development as depicted in the arias of the principal characters.
As Vivian Montgomery sees it, Vivaldi, while drawing on established operatic clichés, was an innovator in his reliance on three main compositional devices to express a complex relationship and exchange of positions between the two principal characters. Holofernes, the all-powerful captain of the army, ends up powerless; Judith begins cautiously and becomes a fearless heroine. Exotic instruments, timbres, and distinctive instrumental textures define the characters and their transformation. As the action develops, melodic traits identifying one character are transferred to the other. Finally, a framework of key relationships supports and defines the stages of the action. Judith sings six arias that outline her progress, from plotting to enter the Assyrian camp to decapitating Holofernes. Her first aria is a simple melody in the “pastoral” key of F major, combined with violins playing sweetly in thirds. Yet a hint of a change in character to come is expressed in this aria’s accompaniment by the full complement of strings and basso continuo employed in her final aria as she slays Holofernes, as well as in her triumphant final accompanied recitative. When Judith pleads with Holofernes to spare the Jewish people, the accompaniment of a viola d’amore along with violins and violas equipped with lead mutes produces a thin sound expressing her vulnerability. In fact, string timbre is progressively thinned in Judith’s arias up until her final triumphant number, the absence of bass instruments contrasting with the heavily bass-supported music of Holofernes and his soldiers. In a fiercely chromatic aria, Holofernes likens Judith’s soul to a swallow tossed by the wind. Originally assigned by the librettist to Judith, this aria was reassigned in Vivaldi’s manuscript to Holofernes, a move that Montgomery maintains was no careless slip but part of a deliberate characterization decision whereby the villain expresses mocking sympathy for the heroine. Judith responds with her own simile aria, an evocation of the turtle dove, symbol of fidelity, represented by the chirping of a salmoé (as indicated in the manuscript; probably a chalumeau, an early form of clarinet, or possibly an oboe-like double-reed instrument).
Full string and continuo accompaniment is used in all but the last of Holofernes’s five arias. The fourth aria, “Nox obscura tenebrosa” (The dark and gloomy night) specifies an organ as continuo; his final aria, during which, spurned by Judith, he falls into a drunken sleep, is accompanied only by organ and obbligato oboe. In a parallel thematic exchange, the militaristic, fanfare motives that characterize Holofernes in his opening arias are adopted by Judith in her final triumph. When Holofernes, in his final aria, begs her to stay, he directly quotes the melody of her sinuous “turtle-dove” aria. The sequence of keys outlined in Juditha appears to be another instance of Vivaldi’s long-range planning. After B-flat is established early on as Judith’s “home key,” the keys chosen for important movements descend successively through the scale to return to B-flat near the end of the oratorio.
The implications of Montgomery’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s compositional intentions for performance are many, she believes, ranging from heightened, even exaggerated contrasts of instrumental timbre and texture to strict observance of similarity in exchanged melodies. Expect to hear the idiosyncratic timbres of “specialty” instruments—chalumeau, viola d’amore, mandolin, viol consort, and organ—emphasized rather than down-played. Borrowed melodies will be recognized if sung at a tempo and dynamic similar to the original, and without the addition of virtuosic ornamentation. In engaging with Vivaldi’s Juditha, the musicians of Eudaimonia and the Longy Early Music program have become increasingly aware of a broader context that extends beyond Vivaldi’s oratorio: the ambiguous and contradictory characterizations of Judith as Virginal Messenger, Femme Fatale, and Sexual Warrior in art and didactic literature from the early Middle Ages to modern times.
Although the Ospedale della Pietà was founded as an institution for the care and education of poor and abandoned girls, many of its most talented musicians stayed on into adulthood as sought-after performers and teachers. Venetians flocked to the services and performances at the Pietà, and close to a cult following of female soloists developed. Juditha was performed by an all-female orchestra and cast, with male singers brought in only to sing the bass parts in the chorus. In contrast to Rome and Naples, castrati were relatively rare in Venice, and Venetian opera-goers were accustomed to seeing women in male roles. In the upcoming performance of Juditha, female singers will also take on the principal male roles, which are scored in the soprano and alto ranges. Casting at Longy was open to a full range of singers, drawing on both opera and early music programs. For Montgomery, it all starts with the text: being aware of its rhetoric, its strong and weak syllables that govern articulation, and avoiding an over-literal interpretation of the musical notation. Understanding the tension between dissonance and resolution is also crucial. In this production, the brave widow Judith will be played by mezzo-soprano Carrie Cheron, a founding and core member of Eudaimonia with a versatile repertory in early music, opera, and jazz who is also a songwriter. Mezzo Dana Kephart, an alumna of the Longy Early Music graduate program, performs the role of Holofernes, the bullying and hedonistic Assyrian general. Supporting roles will be played by alternating casts on Saturday and Sunday. The period orchestra includes members of Eudaimonia and the Longy Early Music program.
For Aristotle, reputedly the first writer to employ the word, Eudaimonia meant the highest human functioning based on the faculty of reason in accordance with moral and intellectual virtue. For the musicians of this “Purposeful Period Band,” Eudaimonia symbolizes their aim to contribute to the social and humanitarian work going on around them. The presentation of Juditha triumphans takes place in partnership with Tomfoolery (for musicians in mental health recovery), The Muslim Justice League (protection of human and civil rights for threatened groups), Yad Chessed (providing emergency financial assistance), Family Promise Metrowest (providing assistance to homeless families), and Samaritans of Boston (working to prevent suicide). Information about the work of these organizations will be available at the performances at tables provided by Eudaimonia’s Social Action Project Team.
Admission to Judith triumphans is in the form of a “Pay What You Decide” tax-deductible contribution following the program. Reserved seats require a minimum contribution of $20 in advance.