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
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