HEADS WILL ROLL

Vi­valdi’s take on the gory bib­li­cal story of Ju­dith and Holofernes is about to be re­vived by a small but am­bi­tious opera com­pany, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

RE­HEARS­ING an opera un­der a flight path may not be ideal, but aiming high in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances is the aptly named Pinchgut Opera’s way. The com­pany is in the sec­ond week of re­hearsals for its pro­duc­tion of An­to­nio Vi­valdi’s or­a­to­rio Ju­ditha Tri­umphans. On the re­hearsal floor, Sally- Anne Rus­sell as Ju­dith is be­guil­ing her en­emy Holofernes ( David Walker) with sweet and ten­der mu­sic. Then an­other pas­sen­ger jet flies over­head, shak­ing but not com­pletely shat­ter­ing the tense and erotic mood.

The visit­ing Ital­ian con­duc­tor At­tilio Cre­monesi rolls his eyes. Some­times it’s a lit­tle bit too much,’’ he says.

Pinchgut, a part- time Syd­ney com­pany, has made a virtue of creative belt- tight­en­ing. The re­hearsal space in the city’s in­ner west is a dis­used cloth­ing fac­tory that has been made avail­able by one of the cho­rus mem­bers: there are, in­con­gru­ously, racks of men’s ties in gold, blue and ma­roon on the floor. The at­mos­phere is one of in­tense con­cen­tra­tion, how­ever, as words and mu­sic are knit­ted into a dra­matic whole.

Ju­ditha Tri­umphans is the story from bib­li­cal times of the beau­ti­ful widow Ju­dith, who charms the Assyr­ian en­emy Holofernes so that she can de­cap­i­tate him. The source of the leg­end is the Book of Ju­dith, one of the apocrypha or deute­ro­canon­i­cal books that are part of the Catholic and Ortho­dox Bibles but omit­ted from Protes­tant ver­sions.

The fig­ure of the chaste and aveng­ing wo­man in­spired mu­si­cians and artists. The spec­tac­u­lar end to Holofernes was a scene that painters of the baroque pe­riod — from Car­avag­gio to Artemisia Gen­tileschi, the best- known wo­man artist of the time — would de­pict with grisly verisimil­i­tude. Ju­dith was the sub­ject of more than 20 or­a­to­rios be­tween 1621 and 1716, when Vi­valdi’s ver­sion was first per­formed in Venice.

In many re­spects, Ju­ditha Tri­umphans mir­rors many of the con­ven­tions of baroque opera. Opera as an art form grew out of the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of the Re­nais­sance, in­clud­ing the artis­tic and in­tel­lec­tual fas­ci­na­tion with pre- Chris­tian Greece and Rome. In­deed, the work com­monly re­garded as the orig­i­nal opera, Clau­dio Mon­teverdi’s Or­feo , first per­formed in 1607, is al­most a mu­si­cal sum­ma­tion of Re­nais­sance Italy’s ide­alised love af­fair with an­cient Greece.

In the high baroque — the pe­riod of Vi­valdi, Han­del and Rameau — opera’s mu­si­cal ges­tures and dra­matic con­cerns be­came more heroic. Ro­man gen­er­als, cru­sad­ing knights, sor­cer­ers, the gods of mythol­ogy and other high achiev­ers were con­sid­ered fit­ting sub­jects, and com­posers drew heav­ily on such sources as Ovid’s Meta­mor­phoses , Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Lib­er­ata and Ariosto’s Or­lando Fu­rioso . Vi­valdi, who com­posed at least 49 op­eras ( the mu­si­col­o­gists are still count­ing), chose such sub­jects as Or­lando and the his­tor­i­cal per­son­ages Tamer­lane and Mon­tezuma. The trick was to cre­ate larger- than- life char­ac­ters and give them the emo­tional truth of mu­sic.

Ju­ditha Tri­umphans , of course, is not an opera but an or­a­to­rio, which de­mands a cer­tain se­ri­ous­ness of re­li­gious in­tent. But it is an or­a­to­rio with un­com­mon dra­matic power.

This is partly be­cause of the cir­cum­stances in which Vi­valdi and his li­bret­tist, Gi­a­como Cas­setti, wrote it. In Au­gust 1716, Venice tri­umphed over its old ad­ver­sary the Ot­toman Em­pire by re­pelling the Turks from Corfu. Ju­ditha Tri­umphans was com­mis­sioned to cel­e­brate that vic­tory: the al­le­gor­i­cal link be­tween Ju­dith and Holofernes and the Venetians and Turks isn’t hard to miss. It was im­por­tant to use a very pow­er­ful li­bretto with a pow­er­ful im­age of a wo­man, with the as­so­ci­a­tion of Venice,’’ Cre­monesi says. You want to have the idea of Venice as a pow­er­ful city.’’

At the time, Vi­valdi was mae­stro di coro ( choir­mas­ter) at the Ospedale della Pi­eta, an or­phan­age for girls, and he wrote Ju­ditha with an ear for the fem­i­nine mu­si­cal forces at his dis­posal. But, given the sen­si­tiv­i­ties in­volved — the young women could not be seen per­form­ing in pub­lic, es­pe­cially a sa­cred work — the per­for­mances took place be­hind a screen. As the Vi­valdi scholar Michael Tal­bot writes, At least, half- hid­den from sight, they were free to do such un­la­dy­like things as to sup­port a dou­ble bass, blow their cheeks out while play­ing the oboe, or wield vi­o­lin bows en­er­get­i­cally.’’

With some in­ge­nu­ity, Vi­valdi worked with what he had. All the roles were sung by women, in­clud­ing Holofernes: writ­ten for con­tralto voice, it is sung in Pinchgut’s pro­duc­tion by Walker, a coun­tertenor.

To over­come the dead­en­ing ef­fect of a screen hid­ing the orches­tra, Vi­valdi el­e­vated the drama in the mu­sic. He wrote more mu­si­cally telling recita­tives than he would, for ex­am­ple, in opera.

He also used a wider variety of in­stru­ments. The or­ches­tra­tion calls for such cu­riosi­ties as the chalumeau ( a clar­inet- like in­stru­ment, some­times called a mock trum­pet) and the vi­ola all’in­glese: Cre­monesi says it is un­known whether this is an English in­stru­ment, or one played in an English man­ner. For Pinchgut’s pur­poses, vi­ola da gamba is used.

He was quite aware that no­body would see any­thing, so he de­cided to use the most ex­tra­or­di­nary in­stru­ments he had at Pi­eta, to cre­ate this drama,’’ Cre­monesi says. You don’t have so many spe­cial in­stru­ments in opera . . . It doesn’t sound the way you ex­pect it to.’’

What the Pi­eta didn’t have, and Pinchgut’s pro­duc­tion will, is mise en scene. Di­rec­tor Mark Gaal and de­signer Hamish Peters have leapfrogged his­tory some­what, with an in­dus­tri­al­look­ing set and the fallen sculp­tured head of an Assyr­ian ruler or gen­eral. News­pa­per clip­pings of re­ports from the Iraq con­flict, pinned to the wall of the re­hearsal space, sug­gest some di­rec­to­rial think­ing about re­cent events. So Ju­dith and Holofernes be­comes an al­le­gory for Venice and Ot­toman em­pire, be­comes an al­le­gory for the West and the Is­lamic East.

Cre­monesi, 44, lives in the same city in which Vi­valdi made his name. A harp­si­chord and fortepi­ano soloist as well as a con­duc­tor, he has spe­cialised in the field of baroque opera, in­clud­ing a suc­cess­ful Dido and Ae­neas last year with the Akademie fur Alte Musik and chore­og­ra­pher Sasha Waltz.

Over a noisy lunch in a cafe near the re­hearsal room, he re­lates how he spent his early ca­reer work­ing with the es­teemed coun­tertenor and early mu­sic in­ter­preter Rene Ja­cobs, first as a repeti­teur when Ja­cobs was giv­ing a mas­ter­class.

A cou­ple of days later I re­ceived a call. I’m Rene Ja­cobs, I would like to work with you’,’’ he re­calls. For a long time I played for his recitals. His last big tour was in Aus­tralia.’’

Cre­monesi be­came Ja­cobs’s mu­si­cal as­sis­tant on op­eras by Mon­teverdi, Francesco Cavalli, Han­del and Mozart. He mar­velled at Ja­cobs’s ut­ter pre­pared­ness in re­hearsal and also his close at­ten­tion to the lan­guage of opera li­bret­tos: Ja­cobs had stud­ied classical philol­ogy be­fore his singing ca­reer took off. His way to approach the li­bret­tos of the 17th and 18th cen­turies was amaz­ing, be­cause he un­der­stood the lan­guage and the way the li­bret­tist and the com­poser were think­ing,’’ Cre­monesi says. Ja­cobs also showed Cre­monesi a way to nav­i­gate the dif­fi­cult wa­ters

of early mu­sic per­for­mance. Mu­sic from the 18th cen­tury presents prob­lems for to­day’s per­form­ers, be­cause many of the per­for­mance tra­di­tions — and even in­stru­ments — from that time have been lost or forgotten. Cre­monesi says a man­u­script of baroque mu­sic should not be read in the same way as the de­tailed score of a 20th- cen­tury piece, in which the com­poser is the fi­nal author­ity.

‘‘( Ja­cobs) made me re­alise that what you have in front of you, the score, is just some­thing writ­ten in a cer­tain mo­ment,’’ Cre­monesi says. ‘‘ It doesn’t mean that you have to take it like the Bi­ble. It’s im­por­tant, but you should be creative and un­der­stand the mean­ing be­hind the notes, the mean­ing be­hind ev­ery­thing.’’

He says he aims to bring to per­for­mance a com­bi­na­tion of mu­si­cal re­search and per­son­al­ity; merely fol­low­ing a baroque score to the let­ter can be stul­ti­fy­ing. ‘‘ It doesn’t give you any­thing, for this kind of reper­toire, if you per­form like onetwo- three- four.’’

Vi­valdi schol­ar­ship is a grow­ing busi­ness, be­cause many of his works resur­faced only in the 20th cen­tury. The com­poser is best known for his pic­turesque set of vi­o­lin con­cer­tos, The Four Sea­sons , but he also wrote dozens of op­eras, about 50 pieces of sa­cred mu­sic and hun­dreds of con­cer­tos.

The repos­i­tory of much of this mu­sic is the Na­tional Li­brary in Turin, which ac­quired the manuscripts in the 1920s through the gifts of pre­pared by con­duc­tor Robert King, Cre­monesi says much can be learned from the com­poser’s hand­writ­ing on the page. Vi­valdi’s ideas about the drama of Ju­ditha Tri­umphans are all in the mu­sic, he adds, so close ex­am­i­na­tion of the move­ment of his pen across the stave can re­veal clues about his think­ing. For ex­am­ple, a quickly writ­ten pas­sage sug­gests ur­gency, which in turn sug­gests the way it could be played.

‘‘ Re­ally look­ing at the way the com­poser writes the mu­sic is very in­ter­est­ing,’’ he says. ‘‘ We use this mod­ern edi­tion, but we don’t have any more the feel­ing ( from a printed score) that a phrase is quite long, and maybe the next wealthy bene­fac­tors. In­ter­est in the com­poser was re­newed; in 1936, the vi­o­lin­ist Olga Rudge pro­duced a cat­a­logue of Vi­valdi’s in­stru­men­tal works in Turin and the poet Ezra Pound cre­ated the Vi­valdi Foun­da­tion. Record­ings of The Four Sea­sons in the 1950s and ’ 60s — from I Mu­sici in Rome and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in Lon­don — brought Vi­valdi to a wider au­di­ence. There are now es­ti­mated to be 400 record­ings of this ever­green work. Vi­valdi’s lesser- known op­eras have come back into cir­cu­la­tion through the work of the Turin- based Vi­valdi Edi­tion, work­ing with such con­duc­tors as Alessan­dro de Marchi.

Cre­monesi has not vis­ited the Turin li­brary, but he has ex­am­ined a pub­lished fac­sim­ile of the score of Ju­ditha .

Al­though he will be us­ing an edited score time very short, very ner­vous. ‘‘ I try to un­der­stand why he is stretch­ing a phrase, in­stead of run­ning, run­ning, run­ning. Maybe it is a very ex­cit­ing mo­ment.’’

Mu­si­cal graphol­ogy, if it can be called that, is just one part of Cre­monesi’s prepa­ra­tion when ap­proach­ing an opera. ‘‘ Go­ing into a new work, or a new cen­tury, I try to know as much as pos­si­ble about the com­poser, about the time, about the city, phi­los­o­phy, po­etry and drama. Ev­ery­thing that was in­flu­enc­ing the com­poser.’’

He started his dis­cus­sions with di­rec­tor Gaal about stag­ing the or­a­to­rio- opera four months ago, in Italy. He prefers to work col­lab­o­ra­tively with a di­rec­tor, rather than keep mu­sic and drama sep­a­rate. ‘‘ It would be im­pos­si­ble for me to work like that,’’ he says. He avoids work­ing ‘‘ with direc­tors who are not in­ter­ested in work­ing with the con­duc­tor’’.

Pinchgut pre­sented its first opera, Han­del’s Semele , in 2001, and has found an au­di­ence for its sim­ply staged but mu­si­cally rig­or­ous pro­duc­tions of less- per­formed works: it has also pre­sented Mozart’s Idome­neo , Rameau’s Dar­d­anus and Mon­teverdi’s Or­feo.

The com­pany re­ceives very lit­tle sub­sidy: just $ 25,000 from fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments for this pro­duc­tion. The City of Syd­ney pre­vi­ously gave $ 20,000 — a dis­count on the hire of the City Recital Hall — but de­cided to di­rect funds this year to emerg­ing artists. There is talk of tour­ing Pinchgut in­ter­state, with a pos­si­ble venue be­ing the new 1000- seat Melbourne Recital Cen­tre, to open in 2009.

Lunch over, Cre­monesi grabs a take­away es­presso and heads back to the re­hearsal room. Ju­ditha Tri­umphans , first per­formed be­hind a screen, is about to come to vivid, bloody life. Pinchgut Opera presents Ju­ditha Tri­umphans at City Recital Hall, An­gel Place, Syd­ney, on De­cem­ber 5 and 8- 10.

Pow­er­ful im­age: Ital­ian con­duc­tor At­tilio Cre­monesi at re­hearsals of Ju­ditha Tri­umphans , writ­ten to cel­e­brate a Vene­tian vic­tory over the Ot­toman Turks

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