You’ve probably seen the image: A determined woman and her maid are holding a large hirsute man down as they energetically cut off his head. Slasher film? Actually, it’s the subject of major paintings by two Italian artists, Artemisia Gentileschi and Caravaggio. The paintings show the Israelite maiden Judith saving her city from the siege laid by Holofernes, the general of Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar. Judith gets him drunk and then chops off his head—perhaps a cautionary tale about reckless drinking, but also the subject of Vivaldi’s sole surviving oratorio, Juditha triumphans.
Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi
Vivaldi wrote the work in 1716 while filling in as choirmaster at the Venetian Ospedale della Pietà (he was already in charge of the orchestra). The Ospedale, the famous orphanage for girls, was home to some of the most virtuosic music of the era. The Venetian lawyer Giacomo Cassetti crafted a libretto for Juditha without an omniscient narrator (unusual for oratorios), so the action progresses with operatic intensity. The resulting work is filled with stunningly melodic arias, high drama, and vocal fireworks that rival the greatest operatic showpieces of the day.
Some notable arias include the florid “Matrona inimical” (“A noble lady”), which Holofernes’s servant sings as he introduces Judith to the general. There’s Judith’s energetic “Agitata infido flatu” (“Tossed by the inconstant wind”), where she speaks of a bird battling turbulent wind, musically depicted by Vivaldi with colorful string writing. The composer’s instrumentation also paints words to superb effect, perhaps best represented in Judith’s gorgeous “Veni, veni” (“Come, follow me”), an aria of Mozartean elegance wed to soaring Italian lyricism where the chalumeau (a predecessor to the clarinet) imitates a cooing turtle dove. Those are just a few of the many unforgettable moments.
Vocal fireworks, technicolor instrumental writing, and high drama—it’s don’t-miss Vivaldi.
Venice Baroque Orchestra
|Tuesday, February 7 at 7 PM
Venice Baroque Orchestra
In this oratorio, Vivaldi depicts the dramatic story of Judith slaying Holofernes through expressive arias, rousing martial choruses, and some of the most colorful instrumental writing of the Baroque era. The score includes instruments like the chalumeau (a clarinet predecessor), theorbos (huge lutes), a consort of viole all’inglese, as well as recorders, viola d’amore, and more—all entrusted to the Venice Baroque Orchestra, an ensemble The Washington Post praised for “percolating energy and lithe, silvery tone.”