S&H Festival review

MONTREUX FESTIVAL: Vivaldi, Juditha triumphans, Auditorium Montreux, August 31, 2001 (FC)

This first of the major lyric events in this year's Montreux Voice and Music Festival is a study in Girl Power. With five magnificent female vocal roles, a woman's choir, and featuring themes of foiled genocide, love and male decapitation, it is bound to leave some women in the hall with a feeling of empowerment. Sung with the power and commitment this imposing work deserves, it was enthusiastically received and a formidable beginning to the festival.

This oratorio, labeled 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. 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 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 conducted the Academia Montis Regalis and the Chorus Luca Marenzio di Roma. In the "historically informed" Baroque revival and especially the increased attention given to Vivaldi's varied output, Italian musical forces arrived 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 case for their own music.

The headliner this evening is the lovely Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, with her honeyed voice and Audrey Hepburn neck. She has been branching out from the Baroque recently and created a significant critical stir with her Cherubino in the Minkowski Marriage of Figaro at Aix-en-Provence this summer. She possesses a rich, creamy mezzo with all of the agility and technical prowess to assume this commanding role. Her appearance at the Montreux Festival in this work is a few weeks in advance of the release of a compact disk recording on the Opus111 label, starring Kozena, De Marchi and the same orchestra.

The other women all made a significant contribution to the evening and were chosen for the quality and timbre of their voices, matching the roles they sang. In the role of the general of the Assyrian armies, Holoferne, Sara Mingardo sang with a rich contralto. Veronica Cangemi's light soprano was effective in the role of the eunuch Vagaus. 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, Laura Polverelli dispatched her beastly and dense coloratura with skill and élan. Patricia Bardon was the odd man out, as it were. Here this dramatic mezzo was out of place with the others. You might look forward to her future Carmen on Chandos but she made rough with the role of the high priest, Ozias.

This opus was a joy to hear and the effective ear for instrumental sound, a Vivaldi trademark, varied the color 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 the text with high drama makes this one of Vivaldi's undisputed masterpieces. It is not without reason that the record label, Opus111, has chosen this work to lead off their announced project to record the entire works of this composer.

Frank Cadenhead

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