Left - Sally-Anne Russell. Photo - Bridget Elliot
‘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
Italy 1617, a red haired Italian priest by the name of Antonio Vivaldi is commissioned by his employer at the Ospedale della Pieta to write an oratorio in celebration of Venice’s victory over the Turks. He takes as his subject matter the biblical story of Judith, a story that draws parallels to a Venice under threat from Turkish invasion; as a result, ‘Juditha Triumphans’ is born.
Australia 2007, Pinchgut Opera presents this little-known work at the City Recital Hall in Sydney for four performances only and draws it’s own parallels between the biblical story and contemporary political struggles. Religious persecution, military domination and the clash of cultures are themes that resonate strongly today. By creating a hybrid world of modernity and antiquity, director Mark Gaal has created an extremely relevant piece of theatre. Who would have thought this possible with a 400 year old oratorio sung in Latin!
‘Juditha Triumphans’ is full of the most glorious vocal and orchestral music and conductor Attilio Cremonesi (also a Venetian) lovingly coaxes the very best from his musicians and singers. The Orchestra of the Antipodes is situated in front of the stage allowing the audience to feel closer to the music making process and to marvel at the curious array of early music instruments; the chalumeau (predecessor of the clarinet) and the theorbo (a variation of the lute) are particularly interesting.
The singers perform on a very small stage consisting of some stairs, scaffolding and various props, and despite the lack of space, the stage convincingly transforms itself into the enemy camp of the Assyrians, the town of Bethulia, and Holofernes’ tent where Judith beheads the Assyrian general.
Sally-Anne Russell sings the title role of Judith and I can’t praise her enough. Not only does she have a glorious voice, she is also a convincing actress. Her voice is capable of beautiful legato and pianissimo singing as well as more dramatic tones, and on several occasions you could have heard a pin drop, so mesmerizing was she. Her performance of ‘Veni, Veni me sequere fida’, which also features Craig Hill on the soprano chalumeau, is a highlight of the evening. The culmination of Judith’s emotional journey in the oratorio occurs when she beheads Holofernes and Miss Russell's portrayal of this struggle is thrilling. Red light floods the stage as Judith decapitates her admirer and the oppressor of her people, blood splashing across her dress; the effect is chilling and realistic and is the most effective murder scene I have witnessed in an opera.
Counter tenor David Walker (Holofernes) has a beautiful warm voice and his performance on opening night, although somewhat tentative at first, became more confident as the evening progressed. Although he is the evildoer of the piece, he presents a not completely inhuman character and this works well as it makes Judith’s struggle with her grim task easier to believe.
Fiona Campbell who plays Vagaus (Holofernes’ aide) is also a singer of outstanding ability and her performance of ‘Umbrae carae’ is incredibly beautiful. This is soon followed by the aria ‘Armatae face’ which she sings after discovering the beheading of Holofernes. Although the aria is full of difficult coloratura, Miss Campbell performs with ease and apparent lack of concern for the obvious technical difficulties; the audience was rightly impressed and showed their appreciation with a generous round of applause.
Sara Macliver sings Abra, Judith’s companion, and Renae Martin, Ozias. Both of these singers perform with confidence and vocal beauty.
Juditha Triumphans is not an oratorio that provides extensive opportunities for the chorus. However, the six choruses that do appear in ‘Juditha Triumphans’ are sung by Cantillation with their usual ease and glorious lightness of tone.
Pinchgut Opera’s performance of ‘Juditha Triumphans’ is a splendid opportunity to see and hear a rare work performed by wonderful musicians and singers. If you appreciate beautiful singing then this is definitely for you. Don’t miss out though because unfortunately there are only three performances left and I dare say that ‘Juditha Triumphans’ won’t be performed again in Sydney for some time to come.
Pinchgut Opera presents
Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans
Sung in Latin with English surtitles
Venue: City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney
Dates/Times: 5, 8, 10 December 2007 at 7.30pm & 9 December 2007 at 5.30pm
Tickets: $45 to $95
Bookings: (from 17 July 2007) City Recital Hall Box Office ph: (02) 8256 2222