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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Juditha Triumphans, RV644 (Oratorio) (1716)
Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo) - Juditha; Sara Macliver (soprano) - Abra; Fiona Campbell (mezzo) - Vagaus; David Walker (counter-tenor) - Holofernes; Renée Martin (mezzo) - Ozias; Cantillation;
Pinchgut Opera; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Attilio Cremonesi
rec. live, City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney, Australia, 5, 8-10 December 2007. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
ABC CLASSICS 476 6957 [59:51 + 58:02]
Experience Classicsonline



For all the popularity of his orchestral music, Vivaldi’s operas and his sole surviving oratorio - of at least four - have been neglected until recently. Though the balance has been ably redressed in recent years, the appearance of this new recording of Juditha Triumphans is welcome.

Pinchgut Opera have already made an impression on MusicWeb reviewers with their recordings of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (476 8030) and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (476 2879). Robert Hugill thought the Monteverdi ‘a strong, involving production which stands up well to other performances even if it is not first choice for the library. For those interested in the state of baroque opera in the Antipodes, it is essential listening’ - see review. Gary Higginson wrote of the Purcell: ‘There is ... much to enjoy with this new version. It has spirit and is alive with a true sense of theatre. All in all, if this sounds the kind of approach that appeals to you then the CD should be searched out without more ado’ - see review.

Sara Macliver and Sally-Anne Russell, soprano and mezzo respectively on this new Vivaldi recording, have also recorded a programme of Bach arias for the ABC label (476 1183, with Orchestra of the Antipodes/Anthony Walker), which Robert Hugill found ‘charming and promising, albeit slightly disappointing ... I look forward to hearing these performers in more of this repertoire. But ... this disc will certainly not be the last word in their performance of Bach’ - see review.

We already have several recordings of Juditha Triumphans, from Philips (Duo 473 8982, deleted on CD but available as a download from passionato.com or amazon.co.uk; or Sacred Music, 462 2342, 10 CDs), Hyperion (CDA67281-2, 2 CDs, also included on the 11-CD collection of Complete Sacred Music on CDS44171/81 - see review), Tactus (TC672290, 2 CDs), Warner Fonit (8573857472, 2 CDs) and Naïve/Opus 111 (OP30314, 3 CDs - see review).

Though the Naïve set runs to three discs, it’s currently on offer from at least online retailer more cheaply than some of the 2-CD sets, though not more cheaply than this ABC recording, which is available for around £16. Bear in mind that a more generous attitude to repeats means that the Naïve recording (at 164:00) contains some 40 minutes and the Hyperion (148:00) some 30 minutes of music more than the ABC. The 11-CD Hyperion set is also an inexpensive way to obtain Juditha in tandem with Vivaldi’s other sacred music, for around £60 from some online dealers.

Like some other reviewers, Robert Hugill found some of the King’s Consort performances on the complete Hyperion set a little understated, though he was bowled over by the performance of Juditha. Most reviewers have found the Negri performance on Philips competent but uninspired, which makes the Naïve/Opus performance under Alessandro De Marchi the chief competition for the new set. Its qualities have been aptly described as strongly projected and dramatically engaging. I haven’t had a chance to hear it in full, having only the excerpts CD to hand, but it sets a standard which I intend to bear in mind in describing the new version: Juditha triumphans, devicta Holofernis barbarie, to give it its full title, has clear dramatic elements and benefits from a performance which brings them out. The disadvantaged young ladies of the Venice Ospedale della Pietà, who gave the first performance, would doubtless have revelled in the feisty heroine’s derring-do.

The story of Judith occurs in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament but it was never admitted to the Hebrew canon, so it languishes among those apocryphal books which are not always printed in English Bibles. It’s a dramatic story of how the Hebrew heroine Judith saved her people by seducing the enemy general Holofernes, then stabbing and decapitating him. It’s been retold in literature at least since pre-Conquest times - a memorable version by Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham, to whom we also owe a dramatic account of the martyrdoms of King Edmund and many others - and it was a favourite theme of painters in the Renaissance. There’s a particularly gruesome version in the Uffizi by Artemisia Gentileschi, sometimes regarded as a proto-feminist. Type Holofernes into Google Images for that and several other paintings, any one of which might have made a better cover for this ABC recording.

This recording stems from semi-staged performances given in December, 2008, some details of which are illustrated in the booklet. Several pages of this booklet are printed on a blood-red background but that’s the only slightly tasteless aspect of the whole presentation.

The Hyperion recording opens with the concerto RV555, which the notes aptly describe as colourful. Like De Marchi on Naïve/Opus, Attilio Cremonesi employs the Sinfonia, RV562, to replace the missing Overture, an apt choice in the appropriate key of D. Whereas de Marchi gives us the whole thing, in two sections, allegro and grave, totalling over 9 minutes, it’s here presented in a truncated 3-minute version edited by assistant conductor Benjamin Beyl. It’s inevitable that small cuts have had to be made to fit the oratorio on two CDs, but I regretted the omission of the grave section, with its echoes of the Winter concerto from the Four Seasons. Otherwise the playing is suitably energetic and sets the dramatic tone for the performance.

The arrangement allows the music to segue seamlessly into the opening chorus Arma, cædes, which here receives a lively enough performance - I’d perhaps have liked just a little more warlike spirit from Holofernes’ army - their opening words refer to furores; King’s chorus sound rather more soldierly and more driven by the Furies than Cremonesi’s but the dramatic impetus is still maintained on the new recording. When Vagaus (Bagoas) invokes the Furies in part 2 (Armatæ face et anguibus, CD2, tr.20), the drama certainly isn’t lacking at that point.

Holofernes is sung by David Walker. In common with most modern countertenors, his voice, though very pleasant and musical, lacks the power which a castrato would have had - even Andras Scholl sometimes disappoints slightly in this respect. His account of Nil arma, nil bella (CD1, tr.4) is effective, but contralto Maria José Trullu on the Naïve set hits the mark rather more effectively - in any case, Vivaldi would probably have employed a female singer at the Ospedale. The Hyperion recording also employs a mezzo, Susan Bickley, though she makes less of an effect here than Trullu.

The other soloists on ABC are all female and all sing attractively and stylishly. Sally-Anne Russell’s account of Judith’s first aria Quocum Patriæ me ducit amore (CD1, tr.8) sets the tone for some truly beautiful singing which follows: if anything, her Quanto magis generosa (tr.15) is even more beautiful. The imaginative instrumental accompaniment to Transit ætas (CD2, tr.5) adds even more to the attractions of her singing. She is, of course, up against strong competition from Magdalena Kožená on the Naïve/Opus set, but she holds her own.

In her interchange with Sara Macliver’s Abra in the following tracks, the two voices blend perfectly - each quite distinct yet in harmony with the other. When Fiona Campbell as Vagaus joins them (O quam vaga, tr.12) she, too, blends harmoniously. It’s difficult to imagine Vagaus’s aria lulling Holofernes asleep, Umbræ caræ (CD2, tr.11) being better sung. Cremonesi allows her just a little longer here than de Marchi gives to Marina Comparato, and those extra seconds add to the quality of the singing. Renée Martin as Ozias, aka the prophet Uzziah, in part 2 completes a fine quintet of soloists; she is, perhaps, just a little too tentative in O Sydera, O stellæ (CD2, tr.2).

The recording is good throughout, with little of the extraneous noise usually associated with live takes. The presentation, too, is attractive. The two CDs are housed in the traditional plastic casing designed for up to four discs, thus allowing plenty of space for the booklet.

The Hyperion recording comes with the usual lavish booklet, with detailed notes by Michael Talbot, also available on their website. This the ABC set cannot quite match, though it contains informative notes and the full sung Latin text with translation. The latter is fairly literal but generally accurate, the Hyperion translation a little more fanciful - more a paraphrase in places. Whereas, for example, Natalie Shea in the ABC booklet renders the second part of the opening chorus as ‘Encircle us, give battle, you Fates of War: inflict a thousand wounds, a thousand deaths’, the Hyperion translation has ‘In the hurly-burly of the fight may the fortunes of war deal a thousand wounds, a thousand deaths.’ Both wander off the mark a little - Hyperion’s ‘fortunes of war’ is a more accurate translation of bellicæ sortes, but their ‘hurly-burly’ is something of a Shakespeare-inspired paraphrase.

Unless you especially demand Magdalena Kožená’s undeniably virtuoso account of the title role, or are particularly wedded to the King/Hyperion or de Marchi/Opus/Naïve version, the new recording has a great deal going for it. I enjoyed listening to it, drawn into the music as the original Venetian audience would have been to hear their republic included in the final chorus of joy - Triumphatrix sit Maris Regina ... Adria vivat, et regnat in pace, May the Queen of the Sea be triumphant ... Long live Adria; may she reign in peace.

Brian Wilson 
 
 


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