This oratorio, labelled a "sacrum militare oratorium," was composed in Venice in 1716, and is the only one of four composed by Vivaldi to survive. Written, of course, when the "red priest" was in charge of music at the girls' orphanage of Ospedale della Pietà, it is remarkable testimony to the wealth of talent and training available in this large institution. To recreate the impact of the first Pietà performance for this recording, women sing all the roles along with an all-woman chorus.
Composed to celebrate a victory in the long contest between Venice and the Turks, it uses the story of the Judith from the Old Testament and her victory over the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar. In telling this story, Vivaldi structured the work for maximum dramatic impact and this comes closer to the spirit of opera than other baroque oratorios. Alessandro De Marchi conducts the Academia Montis Regalis and the Chamber Choir of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia. His conducting makes a convincing case that this is one of the baroque's great masterpieces. In the "historically informed" baroque revival and especially the increased attention given to Vivaldi's varied output, Italian musical forces are arriving late on the international stage.
This splendid original instrument orchestra, conducted with passion and precision by De Marchi, helps to establish him and this ensemble, joining other figures like Fabio Biondi, as Italians who can make a strong case for their own music. The headliner for this recording is the excellent Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, with her creamy voice, agility and technical prowess. She has been branching out from the Baroque recently and created a significant critical stir with her Cherubino in the Marriage of Figaro conducted by Marc Minkowski at Aix-en-Provence this summer. Her Judith here is a model of clarity of line and beauty of tone. If you are not totally transported by her aria "Veni, me sequere fida" with its glorious melody and seductive soprano chalumeau (an early cousin to the clarinet) accompaniment, you should have a doctor check your pulse. The other women all keep the impressive level of singing in this recording and were chosen for the quality and timbre of their voices, matching the character of the roles they sang. In the role of the general of the Assyrian armies, Holofernes, Maria José Trullu sang with a rich contralto. Marina Comparato's agile soprano was effective in the role of the eunuch Vagaus. This role requires a truly extraordinary coloratura voice and contains some of the most wonderful music in this opus. The piquancy of a woman's singing a part normally given to a castrato was probably not lost on the audience. In the role of the servant girl to Judith, Abra, Ukrainian mezzo Anke Herrmann dispatched her beastly coloratura with skill and élan. Mezzo-soprano Tiziana Carraro's dark rich timbre was well suited to the role of the high priest, Ozias.
The text of this oratorio is in Latin and the booklet gives translations in English, French and Italian. There are informative essays, especially one by the conductor talking about the many choices he had to make in preparing this work for performance. This opus is a joy to hear and Vivaldi's effective ear for instrumental sound accented the colour and glow of the fine melodic lines. The arias for Judith, accompanied by, alternatively, two lutes, two recorders, a solo flute and a mandolin, were particularly enchanting. This flair for orchestration plus charging this oratorio with high drama makes this one of Vivaldi's undisputed masterpieces. It is not without reason that the record label, Opus 111, has chosen this work to lead off their announced project to record the entire works of this composer.