The abandoned girls who lived at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice in the early 1700s were renowned. Musical training at the orphanage was of the highest standard and their public concerts were attended by many luminaries, even though the girls performed behind metal grilles. The authorities did not want men in the audience getting too excited.
Vivaldi was among the composers who held positions there. He wrote a number of works to be performed by his students, including the all-female oratorio Juditha triumphans. Present-day performances, as at the Barbican, tend to be more mixed — men among the players of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, but only women as soloists and in the chorus.
The warlike biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes is not the most obvious for all-female treatment. Vivaldi responds by focusing on the gentlest feelings of the protagonists and the fate of the women besieged in Betulia. Holofernes, sung by a mezzo, comes across as a perfectly nice guy. Judith hymns peace and mercy in a long series of serene arias before seizing her moment to chop off his head.
Judith’s music feels the most consistently inspired. Or perhaps that was only because Magdalena Kožená sang it with such beauty and poise. Vivaldi must have admired his young singer at the Ospedale, known only as Caterina, as he created for her a range of lovely, gentle arias, accompanied memorably by the turtle-dove of a chalumeau, muted violins or viola d’amore. Kožená’s recourse to raising the ends of some arias by an octave may be questionable, but in a hall the size of the Barbican it made sense.
Judith is unquestionably the star of the show, even if the swashbuckling aria at the climax goes to another mezzo as Vagaus, Holofernes’s sidekick. Ann Hallenberg gave it her all to energising effect. The other soloists — Delphine Galou, Francesca Ascioti and Silke Gäng — were well contrasted. The ladies of the Guildhall Consort made a spirited choir and conductor Andrea Marcon encouraged the Venice Baroque Orchestra to play the music of its illustrious Venetian forebear with the maximum colour and variety. Period accuracy notwithstanding, nobody performed from behind a grille.
© Richard Fairman, Financial Times