© 2024 WRTI
Your Classical and Jazz Source
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Vivaldi's 'Juditha Triumphans,' composed for an all-women ensemble, is a window into a world

Tempesta di Mare, the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, performing in May 2023.
courtesy of the artist
Tempesta di Mare, the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, performing in May 2023.

“They would literally drop the babies through what looked like one of those night deposit boxes, a scafetta. And if you deposited a baby there, a bell would ring, and people inside would come and retrieve it.”

This description of 18th-century “baby boxes” was but one of the startling historical details shared by Gwyn Roberts, artistic co-director of Tempesta di Mare, in a recent interview about the ensemble’s upcoming performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans. In addition to the sumptuous Vivaldi score, with its shimmering period instrument array, the March 16 concert will feature WRTI Classical host Meg Bragle in the title role, alongside Rebecca Myers, Kirsten Sollek and Gabriela Estephanie Solís.

'Judith Beheading Holofernes' (c. 1620), by Artemisia Gentileschi.
The Uffizi Galleries
'Judith Beheading Holofernes' (c. 1620), by Artemisia Gentileschi.

The tale of Judith and Holofernes has fascinated artists for centuries. In brief: after the Assyrian military leader Holofernes was sent to attack the city of Bethulia, a widow named Juditha defeated him herself. With some seductive tools at her disposal (lovely clothes and a bit of wine), she eventually used Holofernes’ own sword to sever his head.

As Angelica Frey observes in her 2019 article for the online art marketplace Artsy, this story provides “the ideal template for the exploration of the power of female virtue, beauty, and power.”

Similar to visual artists, the story attracted Vivaldi, who was serving as music director at the Ospedale della Pietà, a charitable home in Venice — the site of some of those “baby boxes.” He drew from the grisly tale to compose his sole oratorio, written in 1716 for the women at the Ospedale, many of whom had been orphans, often born out of wedlock by women who lacked the means or support to raise them.

Given the religious mores at the time, boys and girls lived and studied separately at these Catholic orphanages. Boys learned trades, as shoemakers, gondoliers, or in the growing printing industry. Girls learned sewing, cooking, and cleaning; eventually, many became musicians. At the Ospedale, Vivaldi was one of the girls’ teachers, brought in to teach strings by the institution’s music director, composer Francesco Gasparini.

Against this landscape, Vivaldi’s oratorio becomes a compelling history lesson. It’s a glimpse of the Ospedale that suggests a haven, where destitute women could develop musical skills, both vocal and instrumental, and perform for an eager public. But since it was a religious institution, the women performed discreetly behind screens. Listeners came and imagined the women as “beautiful, angel-like creatures” (according to the English writer Charles Burney), though in reality, they were being entertained by products of poverty.

A historical drawing of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice.
Public Domain
A drawing of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice.

At the Ospedale della Pietà, many orphans stayed and made music their whole lives, as part of a “cooperative training ladder,” as Roberts describes it, in which the older women would tutor the younger ones. Recent scholarship gives a deeper dive into the identities of these performers, and Vivaldi’s tutelage as one the few avenues available to poor women in 18th-century Venice who wanted to take control over their lives.

The program notes for Juditha include a complete list of the original cast members, some 61 women, compiled by the Venice-based British scholar Micky White, author of Antonio Vivaldi: A Life in Documents (2018). Browsing the roster is eye-opening. White’s window into the past includes the women’s first names only (since their fathers were unknown), followed by their musical roles and ages.

Consider the youngest performer, Lorenza, a violist at 17; the eldest, Angletta, was a 73-year-old violinist, singer, and teacher. Singing Judith at the time, Caterina (age 44) also played cornet and violone, the latter an early double bass. Another woman, Apollonia — who originally sang the role of Holofernes at 24 — began as a singer, but became an oboist. In a late turn of events, she returned to being a string player. (Why? She lost her teeth.) Given the women’s background and the circumstances in which they landed — all in marked contrast to their singing, musicianship, and pedagogy — it’s hard not to feel fierce admiration, with more than a bit of wonder. It is not far-fetched to link that strength with the oratorio’s subject matter: Judith’s victory over Holofernes.

The interior of the Ospedale della Pietà, showing the screens behind which musicians would perform.
Gwyn Roberts
Tempesta di Mare
The interior of the Ospedale della Pietà today, showing the screens behind which musicians would perform.

Sung in Latin, the piece is described as a “sacred military oratorio.” Roberts explains: “Venice had just won a victory over the Turks, and the story of Judith and Holofernes is an analogy of the Venetian victory. It gets fairly graphic in the middle of the second half. My favorite bit is an incredible aria accompanied by a consort of viols (violas da gamba). Those instruments were very rare in Venice at the time, and were considered to represent death, along with recorders, because they were ‘old-fashioned.’ After Holofernes is beheaded, the gamba consort plays rhythms typically used to indicate bleeding out — the pulsing of a heartbeat.”

Roberts adds, “And then, in the next recitative, Judith says to her attendant, ‘Here, take this bag!’” (Cue waves of laughter during the interview.)

Vivaldi’s instrumentation for Juditha is sophisticated, deploying instruments unusual at the time, which is also a reason for the work’s infrequent appearances. Yes, there are the usual Baroque orchestral suspects: strings, oboes, flutes, bassoons, and continuo. But the score also includes brass and timpani (not usually played by women then), as well as a panoply of rarely heard guest stars, such as the chalumeau (related to the modern-day clarinet), viola d’amore, recorder, mandolin — and not one theorbo, but a flock of them. Tempesta’s executive director, Ulrike Shapiro, noted that sometimes the work has appeared at festivals, justifying the elaborate requirements and expense. For this outing, Tempesta di Mare will collaborate with the University of Pennsylvania, where some ensemble members participate in the school’s music program.

Woodwind players in Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia's Baroque Orchestra.
courtesy of the artist
Woodwind players in Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia's Baroque Orchestra.

Among them is Bragle, who in addition to her role at WRTI is Director of Vocal Studies at Penn’s Music Department. She brings a unique perspective to Judith, calling the role “a dream come true.” After discovering Baroque music through Apollo’s Fire, the renowned early music ensemble in Cleveland, she went on to sing Vivaldi’s “Gloria” with the Mark Morris Dance Group. “I particularly enjoy Vivaldi's obvious delight in writing for the female voice,”she says. “Especially mezzos!” One object of her research is the life and work of Anna Girò, a mezzo who starred as the enchantress Alcina in Vivaldi’s opera, Orlando Furioso.

Two sequences in Juditha are among Bragle’s favorites. “One of the most affecting arias that Judith sings is ‘Transit aetas.’ Accompanied by mandolin and pizzicato violins, it is pure magic, as she sings about how fleeting life is. Another gem is ‘Quanto magis generosa,’ as Judith seduces Holofernes, accompanied by the viola d'amore.”

What can we learn from all of this? Roberts evokes simple human empathy: “These are the people who, in Venetian society, would have been the most despised — many born out of wedlock, or with physical disabilities, such as missing fingers or toes, or jaundice. The fact that someone dealt with a terrible hand could become someone important and respected — someone whom people would travel to hear — is astonishing.”

Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans is not only musically opulent, with a unique palette of colors, but encourages listeners to consider the human beings at the root of its creation, as well as the mythological resonance of its inspiration. As Frey notes, “Even in the 21st century, Judith still has something to say to modern audiences.” And in the process, Vivaldi’s historic odyssey gives us a rare glimpse into another time — a world that has all but vanished, but still speaks to us today.

Tempesta di Mare will present Juditha Triumphans on Saturday, March 16 at 4 p.m., Irvine Auditorium, University of Pennsylvania, $35 to $55; purchase tickets.

Bruce Hodges writes about classical music for The Strad, and has contributed articles to Lincoln Center, Playbill, New Music Box, London’s Southbank Centre, Strings, and Overtones, the magazine of the Curtis Institute of Music. His is a former columnist for The Juilliard Journal, and former North American editor for Seen and Heard International. He currently lives in Philadelphia.