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Juditha triumphans (De Nationale Opera Amsterdam, 26 January 2019)

Did y’all know Juditha‘s outro is the actual anthem of Venice?! I didn’t, to my shame, but I do now. (There are certain themes running through this blog). Good on them, it’s such a great little choir bit, very typical Baroque loose-end tying but so effective. I simply love Vivaldi’s writing and with good reason – if you listen closely, you will hear how his chord progressions have come down all the way to pop music.

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The operatic year 2019 started wonderfully for yours truly with this out of my usual season opera trip to Amsterdam, in the always enthusiastic company of thadieu and Agathe (who organised this one – thank you, thank you!).

After having been tipped off by thadieu a few years ago as to what a gem Vivaldi’s military oratorio, celebrating Venice’s victory over the Ottoman Empire, was, I have (quickly) grown to love it myself. These days it’s got a well deserved spot among my top 3 favourites, yet it’s not often you get to see it staged.

As you know, the concert performance Marcon toured in 2016/2017 was one of my highlights of that season, so when this was announced – and with Iervolino to boot, to whom I was introduced via Nox obscura, anyway – it was a no brainer.

However, that concert performance, as wonderful as it had been (Galou and Hallenberg, hello! Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra + the all female choir), did not prepare me for several things. For some reason, the difference in feel from concert to staged production was the most radical I have seen yet.

Juditha: Gaëlle Arquez
Holofernes: Teresa Iervolino
Vagaus: Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Abra: Polly Leech
Ozias: Francesca Ascioti
Conductor: Andrea Marcon | La Cetra Barockorchester Basel, Choir of the DNO

triumph over rubble?

You have probably gleaned from thadieu’s report (and if you have not, you should read it; whilst you’re at it, read Giulia’s account as well) that this staging is not ambiguous at all as to good and bad. Juditha and her people are the good ones, of course, and Holofernes and them are very horrible indeed, more so than a concert can ever convey.

It’s wartime and we are never left to forget just how that brings out the worst in its perpetrators in particular. I say this because war does not spare the oppressed from stretching the limits of what during peacetime we would call morally sound. In the end we are left with a Juditha unsettled by her own actions and resentful of her heroic status.

So not a happy ending; this Juditha is humanised, not merely a symbol of victory for those who write history. Much is made of the famous painting during the opera, most curiously with Holofernes presenting it to Juditha during their “date”, as part of the looted artwork he has decorated his quarters with. A strange element of foreshadowing, perhaps pointing out Holofernes’ and them’s utter arrogance.

Spoilers? (ps: I hope TI won’t hate me for posting this. Visit her FB for wholesome pictures by clicking on the severed head…)

Yet Holofernes goes to some lengths to appear magnanimous even from the get go: as soon as he comes on stage, he starts by shooting one of his officers who is in the process of raping a Bethulian woman. He goes on to stage a photo shoot of him giving candy to local children (apparently unaware it can also be read as majority creepy). Of course, the libretto (and his very laid back music) does paint him as willing to compromise to a certain extent with the locals. But there is not compromise for Bethulians, it’s freedom or nothing1.

I can see why it was another production featuring the Nazi as the bad guys, given the story and that this was Amsterdam. I still think there is room for this oratorio to be set even more contemporary, though there is always the trap of falling into sensationalism with that, especially when beheadings are involved. Speaking of which, you’ve probably seen Iervolino’s selfie with Holofernes’ chopped head. Armed with that knowledge ahead of the show, it turned out all some of us were eagerly awaiting to see how effectively they would stage the beheading. Though the very relaxed Amsterdam audience giggled a little when the chopped head emerged from under the sheets, it was rather effective. Holofernes was passed out drunk, she put a sheet on his head and did the deed.

With a very unpleasant “upstart” Vagaus, this turn of events looked even more his fault than usual. You remember it is him that encourages Holofernes to grant Juditha an audience. Here, Holofernes appeared particularly uninterested at the beginning and Vagaus had to work hard (and bourishly) to convince him. Then he does a piss poor job at keeping vigilant, given that he found both Juditha and Abra armed upon entering his superior’s quarters.

Relax, it’s just the premiere!

As I mentioned before, none of us were prepared for Gaelle Arquez, whose Amsterdam debut was this very performance. Juditha’s arias are mostly dirges2, because she’s understandably upset with the situation and she’s trying to keep her dignity. It’s a sign of virtuosity to make them stand out and not drag (she somehow even managed to make Transit aetas jaunty). Arquez more than managed that, via deft vocal characterisation and her dense tone that fit Juditha to a t (or a th). Also, her Vivaldi style was impeccable, nothing was overdone or flashy for the sake of it and nothing betrayed how acquainted she is with other repertoire. I really need to hear more from her (more Juditha and more Baroque in general) to talk in further detail, but suffice to say that I like her tone a lot and this first live impression will stay with me for a good while.

I consider myself super lucky to have seen live my two favourite Holoferni. I have said it before, Iervolino is by quite some margin my favourite of the new generation of voices, and in this role in particular. Though more boyish/less sophisticated than Galou’s, her Holofernes does have his own strong hypnotic charm. Her softly resplendent tone lends itself particularly well to the sexy arias sung by the drunken Holofernes during the second part. This Holofernes needed all the help he could get, given the masculine toxicity all around him. But we all know Vivaldi does not portray him in a repulsive manner, so the Juditha/Holofernes scenes are always rather curious. She always seems to have the upper hand, as much as she is literally at his mercy, yet he keeps laying on an irresistible (to us) charm. I don’t know that I can say anything else that I haven’t said before about Iervolino: go see her and you will weep for joy that this wonderful music gets sung by such a voice.

Perhaps to go with the production, Marcon used the “made up” overture this time, which is the first time I’ve seen him do it. You probably know the original overture has been lost – at least partially – so the chorus we are used to is merely the bit that would normally come next. The overture heard here is good enough, in the way Vagaus’ alternative first aria is – but no cigar. Appending it before the chorus feels to me like dampening the powerful effect of the rumbling timpani and piercing (female) chorus.

The fabulous La Cetra Barockorchester Basel… and some rubble

The good news is Marcon and his orchestra are able to make you feel this is thrilling music. All the soloists were marvelous! They played with virtuosity and feeling. The mixed choir – again, I suppose for the purposes of the production, because usually Marcon uses the female-only choir – worked generally very well, with only some minor dragging. When you have the mixed choir you sacrifice that piercing quality for dialogue, which I like as well (I started by prefering Sardelli’s very martial mixed choir and was only won over by the all female version upon hearing Marcon’s take live).

This was my introduction to De Nationale Opera. I want to congratulate the Amsterdam public for being amazing – supremely relaxed yet engaged and well bahaved (no rustling/phone ringing/phone flashing and minimal coughing in the middle of a miserable season). No fussiness about this being a premiere, yet generous with the applause.

The house looks modern inside, along the lines of Opera Bastille. The hall isn’t that large but the stage is – especially deep. The sightlines are excellent and the acoustic very good. It also houses the local City Hall. As you do! Gotta love Dutch Style. We started imaging what if it wasn’t just operahouse/city hall, but also airport3 😉 that would anger the hotel industry, as people would fly in, watch a show and fly out – but isn’t that the Dutchest thing ever? Haha.

Your Juditha needs in one spot

There’s more: the Dutch business sense showed itself at the souvenir counter. Not only did they have Juditha magnets, but also Juditha posters4. Yes, they had opera specific paraphernalia, at decent prices. And a very cute – woman cut option, though no Juditha-option – t-shirt. That’s how it should be done! My only complaint is I didn’t like the poster (ha).

So although I agree with thadieu that Marcon should’ve reined in the orchestra at times (his only fault), and in spite of the minor quibles above, I have gained a very high level of respect for De Nationale Opera. It may not be as famous as others but they do some great stuff here and they are not afraid to feature young talent in top roles – and lesser known operas, for that matter. Lesser known operas that should be MUCH better known. It wasn’t just us, but Agathe’s friends who joined us to the opera also reported liking it a lot.

Even the inclement weather (rain followed by heavier rain) did not dampen the mood. Thadieu saved the day via uber, which showed up in 5min, which meant we didn’t miss the overture (I was particularly worried we would miss the choir, of course).

It’s all Vagaus’ fault

I just realised I said nothing about Vagaus other than he was unpleasant here. Berzhanskaya did a very good job with him. If you remember, he has the flourish arias in this piece – and they are quite a few. You may think he’s merely a sidekick but does he work hard or what?! So there was a bit of disconnect between his general unpleasantness (thanks, direction) and that sweet aria (Umbrae carae – remind yourself how lovely it is) where he puts a blanket over his sleeping buddy Holofernes and cleans up the dinner date leftovers. Just when you thought this one would follow the out of the leftfield evil dudes and rub his hands at the first chance his superior is incapacitated, he gets all soft and lyrical. A bit of bromance there, eh? You know the adage: he may have done evil things, but he was nice to his family.

Anyway, this is a role where coloratura is the first and foremost requirement. If you can get gentle on Umbrae carae = bonus. Berzhanskaya worked as hard as you’d expect in this role and aced her angsty coloratura, though she had to climb over rubble at the same time, occasionally at the expense of projection. I wouldn’t mind hearing her again in other angsty/perky roles of this repertoire that are best served by youthful, slender voices.

… and what with this mesmerising oratorio, I managed to bungle up my local opera going. But I have a feeling in the long run this will be a very small price in comparison to the exceptional memories. Seriously, go if you can. There are still a few performances.


  1. According to the booklet, the Assyrians had not won the fight yet. It was merely the eve of the battle when Juditha wormed her way into their camp. 
  2. Aside from Transit aetas, where she’s very playfully reminding a very drunk Holofernes about the perishability of beauty. 
  3. Although I have some annoying memories from my second time at Schipol in 2012, I love how easy to navigate it is, considering it’s one of the busiest in the world and it’s set over canals and the motorway. I don’t know how, but it takes you about twice as long to get from the plane to Arrivals at Luton. Only then you take a bus to the train station, whereas here you’re on the train within 5min. And the train is 5.50 euros, tax included. 
  4. Which they wrap for you in their own poster-box. They have thought of everything. 
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Arquez triumphans in Amsterdam

Thadieu: Arquez is the best Juditha ever!

Everyone else: Confermo!

That is all.

For now.

You be the judge

ffwBefore I toot my own horn, I’ll direct you to this review of Juditha. Does some of it sound familiar? I’m game to to be told to pull my head out of my own arse if it doesn’t.

Re: Galou’s supposed lack of projection (check the above linked review): I have two words for you – Baroque contraltos. How many of them have you heard to shake the walls, this side of Podles (who’s more a contralto who also sang Baroque very well 20 years ago, rather than a Baroque contralto in the 21st century)? In recent times I have heard Prina, Mingardo, Stutzmann and Summers and let me tell you, none – aside from Prina at her most vicious – came anywhere near to even bothering my ears at Wigmore Hall and if you’ve read anything on this blog you know I have sensitive ears.

They have Baroque sized voices (few large voices can move fast/easily enough for the demands of Baroque coloratura), by their nature (and necessity, considering what they are asked to sing – usually second men and scorned women, often villains, written to contrast the bright sounds of the heroes), opaque in colour. Now imagine that at the Barbican, a venue not known to be friendly to any singers. That being said, let’s hear Galou in a high lying role and we might be talking differently. We should also revisit this after Ariodante comes to the Barbican next year and we hear Prina again (never heard her at the Barbican before).

You can’t fault a singer for sounding as the role asks (in this case, relaxed), even when some around them have bigger voices and/or employ pyrotechnics for the express reason of wowing the audience.

Now that I have immersed myself in 3-4 different Judithas, I’m going to return to the subject, as there are some interesting variations I heard that call for further commentary.

Juditha triumphans or Sex, Death and Mezzos (Barbican, 2 November 2016)

At long last! Marcon’s take on “Vivaldi’s triumphant celebration of sex, death and boundless glory”, as the Barbican site blurb advertises it, reaches London.

Upon telling my mum I was on my way to seeing a Vivaldi piece, she quipped “Oh, flowers and birds”. Excuse me?! I know he’s most famous for his musical descriptions of weather conditions (Weather at 6 with the Red Priest) but around here we already know Vivaldi is the most rock’n’roll Baroque composer. More rock’n’roll is only being struck down by an implacable cold, as yours truly was just yesterday, and valiantly plowing on because nothing says Sacred Military Oratorio more than an all female cast and all female choir.

Juditha: Magdalena Kožená
Holofernes: Delphine Galou
Vagaus: Ann Hallenberg
Ozias: Francesca Ascioti
Abra: Silke Gaeng
Andrea Marcon director | Venice Baroque Orchestra

Last night I wrote a 2000+ word report on this performance only for WP to eat it up like the flesh eating plant it can be. I suspect it was my digs at the ugly and pointlessly meandering Barbican that did it 😉 tough shit, Barbican, even the dismay at finding myself tired and sick as dog at 4am with my loquacious entry wiped out won’t stop me from bitching about the Brutalist monstrosity that you are.

But reports of a 2000+ words entry might give you an indication of how much I enjoyed myself. I urge you to see it for yourself if/when it comes in your neck of the woods, which is as follows:

  • 8 November at Bozar in Brussels
  • 4 February in Urbana, Illinois
  • 7 February at Carnegie Hall in NYC

Whilst selling your first born might be slightly OTT, you have my blessing if you’re thinking of pawning off your mother-in-law 😉

My records show just how much I talk the talk instead of walking the walk: it’s my first time with a full Vivaldi operatorio since Griselda 2 years ago. But what a piece! As soon as the martial timpani start to roll, the trumpets blow their piercing trills and the girls’ choir launches its war cry you know you’re in for a ride. I understand the overture was lost so the original Juditha started differently. I can’t imagine how the overture could’ve topped this intro.

judithabarbican

One good thing about the Barbican is that the auditorium, like most venues built since the ’70s, affords very good visibility from every seat. The seats themselves are comfy and legroom is plentiful. I myself had coincidentally picked a spot on the Barbarian Side (Holofernes and Vagaus) and needed just a bit of adjustment at the beginning (it’s a big venue for Baroque voices).

Let me begin by stating my appreciation of Marcon and his team, starting with his insistence (judging by other renditions of his) to keeping the all women’s choir. I initially liked the mixed choir favoured by Sardelli and Fasolis but now I’m sold on this.

Vivaldi gives solos to practically all the wind instruments, the mandolin and of course, the violin, and there are 4 theorbi for our enjoyment. A special word from me goes out to the timpanist, who looked like he had great fun in his interventions. Everything was very stylishly played and most pleasing to the ear, so those of you who enjoy the sounds of the Baroque orchestra in itself should try to make that extra sacrifice and catch this as I’m certain you’ll love it.

Next up is Kožená. As some of you know, the mezzo lover that I am, I have studiously been avoiding her so far. But since the night featured two of my favourite singers in this repertoire and since I genuinely like the oratorio, I had no choice but to take my chances.

I have to admit that my criticism of her has been unfair. She is actually a good singer, with a true mezzo tone (recently plumped up? sounded a lot rounder and more burnished than in (earlier) recordings). Her chief skills were a deft employment of dynamics (here mostly volume-wise) and a very reliable, vibrato-less trill (quite an interesting production, too; enough to have stayed with me so that I think I could pick it out of a line-up in the future).

Perhaps she and Marcon had made a pact whereby Juditha’s arias were slower than usual. Since she’s not exactly a stage animal, my mind occasionally wondered off. But when things got frantic I noticed she had to focus more and didn’t project quite as loudly as she did otherwise (unsurprisingly, her voice is bigger than her more Baroque oriented colleagues’). Nevertheless, she met the technical demands of the role. There were some trills and pyrotechnics I thought you don’t usually hear in a Baroque context but mostly she kept idiomatic.

I’d have liked a bit more abandon but I think that just isn’t her personality, nor is Juditha necessary the character to bring such things out. Still, sometimes, even when Juditha was fuming with outrage and hatred she just went for louder rather than more intense. Only once did she let things flourish a bit – oddly during the aria where Juditha muses on the impermanence of things. Somehow she got so much into it that her face changed to the point she looked 10 years younger. Quite an unusual thing to witness (I had my opera glasses and watched the singers closely during their arias).

But all in all, hearing her was a positive experience. I don’t know that I’d rush to her next recital but if she sings something I enjoy I might think about it. I most certainly won’t avoid her again.

Speaking of unsual things, the Barbarians, Juditha veterans that they are, brought a unique vibe to the Barbican, the sort I don’t think I have witnessed before and I have seen some exciting things there. They were both so relaxed and good humoured, the atmosphere was a curious combination of the chummy quality recitals can have and top quality professionalism. I have mentioned Hallenberg’s cheerfulness before but since this was my first time seeing Galou live I didn’t know she was also 5 by 5.

But let’s talk a bit about Juditha, because since it’s in Latin the finer points of the libretto have hitherto been foggy to me. Now with surtitles I could elucidate the gaps. It goes something like this:

Girl Power Choir/Virtuous Bethulian Women: War! Death! Vengeance on the enemy!

Holofernes: victory! My brothers, you have fought well but as conquerors we must show mercy to our defeated enemy, ’tis only gentlemanly.

Vagaus (Holofernes’ squire): hey, boss, I bring good tidings.

Holofernes: please speak.

Vagaus (winks): boss, there’s this hot local babe wants to speak to you.

Holofernes (lifts an eyebrow): do tell me more.

Vagaus: she’s top drawer, boss, I think you should see her pronto.

Holofernes: please bring her in. But tidy the tent a bit before you go.

Vagaus goes to where Juditha and her companion, Abra, are waiting.

Vagaus (friendly): fair local matrons, my lord is ready to receive you. Please don’t be frightened by his ferocious appearance, he isn’t only a glorious warrior but also a most just and kind master. Feel at home, you’re among good people here.

Juditha: (to Abra) what arrogance!

Juditha enters the tent.

Holofernes: (aside) wow! I knew Vagaus had good taste in women but WOW! (to Juditha) Gracious lady, excuse our coarse military manners. Please be my guest and take a seat.

Juditha (not wishing to appear too easy): I’m but a humble daughter of my unfortunately defeated Fatherland, I’m not worthy of sitting in the presence of such a great lord.

Holofernes (seductive): oh, but you are! Please sit.

Juditha (coldly): it’s against good manners…

Holofernes: Sit, sit, sit! Please, my fair matron, take a seat.

Yes, he has a jaunty mini tantrum (Sede, o cara) which he spends enticing Juditha to take a seat. Oh, for the good old days when Barbarian army commanders were raised well and sounded as smokey-seductive as Galou 😉

Juditha eventually decides it’s wiser to comply (or maybe she gives in a little to that velvety voice – because Holofernes doesn’t shout or really get angry (even less so the gallant way Galou is singing him), he’s confident and keeps it seductive throughout. Therefore, Galou regaled us with her easily and finely spun, impressively long lines of legato and slender, dark honey middle that should make many a Juditha forget her duties to god and country 😉

We’ll have to wait to experience her skills at portraying madmen and eccentrics via that surprisingly (for a contralto) clear and piercing top some other time. Can’t have it all – except in a recital (or two) at the trusty Wigmore Hall? One can hope! The good news is her voice is very well captured by recordings so you’re not missing that much at home beside that almost gregarious stage presence).

Holofernes (all smiles): so how can I honour a most lovely visitor?

Juditha (offers him a religious tract): have you heard the good news?

Holofernes (takes the tract but keeps his eyes on her): the best news is your presence in my tent.

Juditha (with dignity): I came to beg mercy for my Fatherland.

Holofernes: you ask much, fair matron. But you shall have it – and more. I was just saying to my boys that it’s time to put a stop to war and make peace with the good citizens of Bethulia. Would you like to have dinner with me? I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate peace between our people!

Juditha (coldly): I’m just doing my duty to my country and to my god.

Holofernes: but it would make me so happy if you accepted! I’ll order the best dishes in the land.

Juditha: (aside) the best dishes in my land, bastard. (aloud) Food? Pah! After much famine and hardship we have learned not to pay attention to such trifles. Besides, our god has placed a lot of restrictions on foodstuffs…

I understand Juditha is a Bethulia Liberation Front militant but, my god, does a storm cloud hang over her head or what? She’s such a wet towel to Holofernes’ (and Vagaus’, who’s obviously smitten as well) eager gallantry. I wish she was more dishy like Dalila, they’re both secret agents with similar missions, are they not? She doesn’t do much seduction, honestly. She’s dignified and honourable and loyal to her country and god.

Kožená and Galou played them like this – Juditha cold and severe and Holofernes so suavely solicitious at one point even Kožená couldn’t keep a straight face any longer and broke into an amused grin. But her favourite moment was obviously the recit where Juditha vividly describes her skills with a blade.

Warriors of the world – and Octavian – please keep your swords out of the bedroom. Remember most accidents happen at home. Also, try to exercise caution when a gorgeous stranger of the defeated enemy shows up at your door for sexy time. The moral for our times: risk assessment is essential.

Speaking of caution, Vagaus, this disaster is all your fault, mate. What in the world were you thinking pushing your boss in bed with the newly conquered?! We know what Vivaldi was thinking – Armatae face et anguibus, Vagaus’ show stealing vengeance aria at the end of the oratorio.

And stolen it was, Hallenberg soaring with her characteristic organic manner of singing – not so much a vocal soloist but voice as integral part of the orchestra. Armatae is a fiendish aria to begin with – what with the leaps, the dramatic inflections the text asks for and the fast and furious coloratura, yet she took it to another level by matching the other instruments’ in tone and dynamics at every step. It really doesn’t get better than this. To be fair, Vagaus is such a fun role. He even has an early aria about the joys of wining and dining (O servi, volate) to the accompaniment of all 4 theorbi and little else (cembalo?).

I don’t know what happened to Basso. If there was an announcement between April and now I missed it. Though I was sad to miss her, Ascioti (as Ozias) did a very good job (solid, sonorous tone and excellent diction as well as good acting). Gaeng (as Abra) also sang with aplomb and was appropriately vicious towards the Barbarians.

Some comments on outfits: Kožená wore a red dress with pockets. They seemed rather an accessory than efficent tools but pockets they were. Hallenberg had on her blue/purple frock and comfy gold pumps, whilst Galou wore a version of her pant and frock/trenchcoat with the spikiest heels. I couldn’t even begin to imagine walking on something like that but she might as well, as her posture is remarkable even by singer standards (she didn’t even use the backrest of her chair for most of the night). I also realised she’s not as tall as I initially thought. Being very thin with a big head will cause that perception. Ascioti had a wide leg pant and very long vest-y combo that some singers favour in recitals. I seem to remember a Vagaus with a wide leg pant somewhere on YT, so Juditha attracts these 😉 Gaeng won the most daring (in a way) and amusing outfit with her zebra dress. But Marcon himself thought a touch of style would keep the audience interested – his black shirt had a slit at the back which revealed a white inset.

Some comments on the audience and the Barbican (yes, I’m unrepenting): if the ROH public is the most formal in town, the Barbican audience favours the retired university lecturer attire (check shirt and wool vest, optional receeding yet wild hair and thick rimmed glasses). I had one on each side of me as well as one in the row below, who only lifted his head from the programme to shush a young professional couple (another feature at the Barbican) who, inexplicably, started to chat during the intro to one of Holofernes’ arias. Also naturally silver or white bobs seem to be all the rage with women aged 50+.

For being a fancy “cultural centre”, sporting spaces for music, theatre, film, fine art and photography exhibits, as well as a wide range of the now inevitable dining spaces (as if audiences can’t go for three hours without stuffing their pieholes), the Barbican could really up their game when it comes to the toilet experience. They’re all on one level which is reached by being forced to spin in pointless circles and there’s always a queue and the stalls are often out of order. Did I mention it’s ugly as sin and you have to be careful through which entrance you exit or you might lose your way in the depressing cement mess that it its outside balconies (or ramparts)?

But venue aside, this was a most pleasant performance experience, for which I once again thank Marcon and team plus the choir and the soloists. We need more Vivaldi and by extension, more mezzos and contraltos 😀 Yes, I really wish there was another performance I could’ve attended, even as broken and sick as I am today.