Watteau, gaily: Vivaldi’s “Juditha triumphans” at Theater an der Wien

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[Curtain Call for Vivaldi’s “Juditha Triumphans” at Theater an der Wien, Jan 25th 2017: Hilary Summers, Gaia Petrone, Marianne Beate Kielland, Julia Doyle, Emilie Renard, Robert King, Choir of The King’s Consort, The King’s Consort]

Do you know  the Twitter account that pairs every word in the dictionary with ‘gay’?
For reviewing this “Juditha Triumphans”, it was either posting that, or writing an actual review out of my notes. I’ve decided to go with option two, though I am not sure you will be able to tell the difference.

(I apologize beforehand because this may well be the gayest review I have ever written. Call it a gayview instead.)

In 2006, I saw “Giulio Cesare” at Theater an der Wien. My initial reason for that visit was Marijana Mijanovic, but in the cast was also Malena Ernman, of whom I had never heard before, and who left a lasting impression. So much, in fact, that when I started this blog, one of my first entries was on Ernman and that “Cesare”.

The post I had imagined myself writing about this “Juditha” was about returning to Theater an der Wien and hearing Ernman there again, and being very happy and nostalgic. And I will write that post some day, hopefully, but this is not that post.

At two days’ notice, Ernman had to cancel (my delts were inconsolable).

Marianne Beate Kielland, who had originally been slated as Holofernes, took over as Juditha, while Holofernes went to Emilie Renard, whom I remembered as a scruffy, boisterous Valletto from last year’s “Poppea”. The rest of the cast appeared as listed, with Julia Doyle as Vagaus, Gaia Petrone as Abra and Hilary Summers as Ozia. – Lots of ladies, as God and Vivaldi intended (there were men in the band and male singers in the chorus, but other than that, it was Girls, Girls, Girls).

The evening started off with Robert King giving a little speech (delivering Ernman’s apologies) and using the chance for some classy shade-throwing at current Western events, by pointing out all the different nations coming together in the pit to make music together and share it with this Austrian audience (it was fourteen nations, if I recall correctly, and he listed them all). It was the most understated and polite way to say “screw nationalism and Brexit” one could have imagined. Hearty applause an der Wien.

The King’s Consort played up with the same kind of confidently understated ease and dedication: The band gives off a vibe that would make you trust every single member to get up and behind a lectern at Cambridge and talk about their music-making in between. Their sound – I hadn’t heard them live before – is sophisticated in the best way, like mellow single malt gleaming in a glass in a muted manyfold of shades. Rather than tight, nervous energy, the pit exuded a confident calm: Watteau, not Caravaggio.

Some of my impressions will be shaped by my seat, which was very front, very side, so that I was basically looking across the shoulders of not one, but four theorbos (“Juditha” truly is a gem), and straight (or not) at the lady double-bass. If you wanted to make me happy: that’s pretty much all it takes.

Before we get to the singing, I have to address fashion (Yes. You’ll see why in a moment):

First entrance, with an Amazonian height advantage: Kielland in an arguably feminist gown of “roses (and my earrings) are red, violets are and have been a code for queerness since the early 1900s.” Kielland was accompanied by a slight figure with very short black hair in a well-tailored black tux, with a pair of heels that likely required a carrying permit, and I thought, “yay, Vagaus in heels!” until the singing started and I realized that the lady in the tux was Abra.
#FeudalWarriorPrincessAndBadassHandmaidenForever

And into my dazed thought of “Could this be any more queer-friendly?” entered Emilie Renard’s Holofernes in a black suit – bracelet length sleeves! -, smirking into the audience. Well.
That pretty much set the mood, and it was none of ‘trying to be masculine’ and much of ‘effortless assertiveness’. Also: hair. And heels: I think the Queen of the Night just called, she wants her Sparkly Pet Crocodile back. – Did I mention the smirking?

But onto the singing: Renard’s voice is even and well-tempered. It doesn’t have a dark tinge in color or a lot of heft in the lower range, which puts her at a bit of a disadvantage for the part of Holofernes. At times, her low notes got swallowed up by the orchestra (which might have carried differently in the hall than in my side box). Renard didn’t push, though, but focused on her strengths: a balanced, smooth tone that shone most in half-speed scales in the middle and upper range, and a good grip on passaggi throughout.

Vagaus, in contrast to a mezzo Abra, was cast with soprano Julia Doyle, whose material is essentially lyric, but who handled the vast coloratura well. Her lighter tone gave a different slant to Vagaus, less army general and more cocktail steward. Doyle, in turn, wore a pale linden-green dress with a dramatic length and cut and sparkles. It had an upgraded 1950s vibe to it that would have allowed it to star as an extra in “Carol”.

Also, with Doyle’s pixie cut, the primary question of the evening quickly turned to ” Who’s got the shortest ‘do?”

The first Vagaus aria – which I have only heard so far sung by light mezzos or more sizable sopranos – sat a little low for Doyle, who had to work more on breath here, but she displayed a nice flow of tone when she entered upper range.

Renard did come across very well in her recitatives, which seemed to bespeak her Monteverdi experience: a good sense of structure and thinking from the diction.
The backdrop continuo was a luxury edition, too – and it continued to hold true for Juditha’s first “Quo cum Patriae”: seduced by the theorbo section before Juditha even started singing.

Kielland has an interestingly dark, yet slender, tone and her singing – perhaps also owed to the part – was very cultivated throughout. I found myself wondering at times what her Holofernes would have sounded liked (and looked like – #I_can_haz_tux?). She was not afraid to sing quietly and give attention to very subtle shades, being matched well in this by The King’s Consort.

The actual lyrics to “Quo com Patriae” (subtitle: #KiellingOver) possibly translated to

“My earrings are red,
violet is queer,
I’ve got someone to behead,
but I’ve got this, no fear.”

Then Abra (Gaia Petrone) got up in her tux (no, I will not be over this any time soon), walked a very close circle around Juditha, took the chance to trail a hand down Juditha’s bare arm and glance meaningfully at her. Juditha looked back with a soft little smile, and I think the scene broke my gay-o-meter because it maxed out and shattered into a cascade of rainbows.
“Okay, so in this version, Juditha and Abra are definitely an item,” the last working neuron of my addled brain croaked. Then it fizzed out into oblivion.

And then Petrone started singing. I have to admit I didn’t remember her as the Damigella from last year’s TADW “Poppea” at first. Petrone’s voice stood out since she was the only one with a more pressure-heavy tone production and a more immediate dramatic sound. Her overtone spectrum is is a little denser, more tightly packed, with a timbre that – though she is Italian – reminded me of Slavic singing schools: Russian or Bulgarian, with a focus on a more uniform color that is darkened and slightly guttural. My first thought was, especially after getting a first impression of Petrone handling coloratura: “I want to hear her sing Rossini. Like Cenerentola, for starters.” (I googled later: she apparently did that already)

The powerhouse presence extended to Petrone on the concert stage, where she remained at all times very much focused on her stage partners, to the point of turning her back to parts of the audience to be able to focus on the other singers (mostly, gazing up at Juditha or scowling at Vagaus) and her voice still carried very well even when she faced away from where I sat.

My notes at this point:
“Why is Abra flirting the hell out of Juditha? – I don’t care. Please carry on with it.”

The Choir of the King’s Concert echoed the band’s approach of relaxed nuance. “O quam vaga” floated down from the stage like a muslin veil, making way for Vagaus’ “Quamvis ferris” that got a lot more power, and gave Doyle the chance to display command of runs with an effortless, quicksilver tone.

Renard, in turn, stopped the clocks (and, arguably, some pulses in the audience) with the way she ended her following recit in phrasing “…suae teneri Amores” just so. – You think Baroque flirting in Latin is boring? Think again.

This is the recit that marks the first exchange between Holofernes and Juditha in their diplomatical one-up(wo)manship with innuendo as a currency. Between Kielland’s very refined singing (and the fact that Juditha was apparently queer and dating Abra) and Renard’s lighter tone, their sparring turned out to be more foil fencing than crashing longswords (yo, #Iervolino!). Both have their appeal.

The next point in this duel went to Kielland for how she delivered “…sua gloria concedit.” Sly, sly, sly.

In the back and forth between the two of them, I felt like Alf in that one episode where he is following a marital discussion between the Ochmoneks next door with a pair of opera glasses, doling out points on a blackboard as arguments are tossed back and forth.

The other challenge going on was, “Who does throw the more smoldering looks at Juditha: is it Holofernes, or is it Abra?” (clear winner: the audience)

Kielland’s “Quanto magis generosa” was beautiful, the kind of tone from which you would accept candy in the street even though your parents told you not to. The “…victori gloriosa” was such a beautiful, pure line with the perfect balance of weight that I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the alchemist world formula. That – and I quote my notes here – really is the beauty of Early Music singers: they know exactly where to put the weight of  phrase based on diction.

Still in that aria, Kielland’s “O quam pulchra tua potentia” *cue smile at Holofernes* only has one comment in my notes:

“…WORD!”

Throughout this aria, Kielland’s approach of “I don’t have to shout this, I can do this perfectly well in my indoor voice” was wonderful.

Holofernes then got a chance to get even with a four-theorbo (HELLO theorbos!)  back-up, and as I remarked elsewhere already: if that doesn’t get you the girl, she simply isn’t into guys.

Holofernes’ “Sede, sede” was another example of Renard balancing the lack of a powerful lower register through well-shaped impulse. The first half of the phrase carried very well, but naturally – both Holofernes and Juditha were originally cast with contraltos, even though ‘contralto’ meant a different thing in 1739 – some of the lower bits got swallowed up by the pit. But a smirk will go a long way in getting your meaning across, too.

A companion piece to this – and to pondering the question of casting choices – was Juditha’s bravura aria “Agitata infido flatu”. The celli in the intro were on fire!
Kielland then faced the same challenge of being a slender mezzo voice in a showpiece that seemed to ask for more power. Her darker color worked very well here, especially in the stylized wails that sit on the break. Yet even though her tessitura is not that of a high lyric mezzo, I couldn’t shake the impression that the aria sits largely on the register break for her.

Perhaps that is the issue with casting Juditha overall: the part is not that low in range, but a lot of it happens in a place where most mezzos switch registers, so if you cast this with a mezzo, you need one with either a very low or a very high break, and still enough lower range to cover the arias.

Either way, Holofernes is stunned by this number, then Vagaus segues into “O servi volate”, only to have Abra – in this take – sneer him offstage with, “I’m with her!”
Then Juditha comes back and sings “Veni, veni, me sequere fida”, for which I will now simply give you my notes as they happened:

Judith is definitely dating Abra here. I am singed by the gay!

“Abra amata…” – *fainting alert* We are not even in the vicinity of kidding around here.

Apparent staging instructions: Íf someone smiles at you meaningfully? Cast long glance back. Smile softly. (kindly sidestep fainting White Shirts)

– Is everybody gay here?! (This feels like the scene in “In & Out” where the lady beard runs into the street and screams “Is everybody gay?!!” into the night.)

There are soft smiles and hand-holding and —– GAAAAAAAYYY.

“Turtur gemo ac spiro in te.”

(uhm, yes. Everything is gay here and nothing hurts.)

PS. to be fair: I likely wouldn’t have survived Ernman in this.

The aria – once a modicum of coherent thought had been reestablished on my part – is another example of the part of Juditha needing a solid low register, but no mezzo-low register break. Kielland’s handling of the aria improved over the length of it, though it really seemed to hinge on having, again, to deal with register change in this piece.

Abra’s following “Fulgeat sol frontis decorae” was another calling card for “please cast me in all the spunky Rossini parts.” (would travel to see her take on Cenerentola: 10/10).

Closing out the first part is a choir number, “Mundi Rector de Caelo micanti”, and it came with exquisite choir soli and accompanying theorbos (and at this point it was not even necessary any longer to try and seduce me into this. Overkill!).

This entire end of part one was possibly the gayest thing I have ever witnessed on a stage (and I have seen “Die Perlen der Cleopatra” from Komische Oper which has male dancers in faux lashes and sparkling body paint, sporting nipple tassels).

The last soloist to make an entrance – and she did make an entrance – was the Ozia of Hilary Summers, who finally added some actual contralto color to the mix (first impression of timbre: “Marry me, Mijanovic!” – no, I don’t think I can be held accountable for my notes at this point, and I will not tone them down. There’s is enough tampering with news sources these days as it is). Summers basically walked out in Eisenstein’s morning frock from “Die Fledermaus” as if the hashtag #RegalContralto had been waiting for an illustration.

Summers isn’t the organ type of oratorio contralto, and there are some hoarser spots in the middle register by now that didn’t carry that well (again, my side seat probably accounts for some of that), but she sang with good taste and good balance between her attitude and the attitude in the pit.

On the King’s Consort overall, I enjoyed their take of measured refinement – never disengaged or haughty, but not trying for extravagant tempi or breakneck contrasts. It was very much about nuance, in a manner that never felt strained. A telltale scene for this was a moment from the second part, where Robert King sat perched on the balustrade behind him, conducting with just one hand, not needing a lot of space for it, with a smile on his face.

For part two – which, overall, seemed a bit devoid of drive in comparison to part one – it bears repeating that Renard’s work in the recitatives was equal parts lovely and foxy, with a very appealing flow. Of her remaining two arias, “Nox obscura tenebrosa” stood out: When she gets a chance to build middle range phrases, like the lenghty “ooo” ones in this, it really makes an impact. I would like to hear in something with a higher tessitura next. Wouldn’t she make a good Nerone? (that would also account for the smirking)

The flirt fights between Juditha and Holofernes continued (#LesbianLatin101. With smirks!), and Kielland’s tone in these exchanges – sly, but with intentional warmth, too – was also a thing to behold (my notes, less sophisticated, read “yuummmmm”), culminating then in “Transit aetas”, the last come-hither aria where one of the theorbos switched to mandoline, just kill me, why don’t you.

Of all the Juditha arias, this one seemed to sit best for Kielland’s voice. Especially her work around the final “cuncta sumus” was of a color that would make me come to my window immediately. Followed by likely throwing myself out into the night to boot (which adds in the obligatory Rilke Reference of Approval). Now also on my list: hearing Kielland sing “Nox obscura”. Juditha’s “Vivant in pace” was also a good fit her, with a particularly noteworthy “in pace anima mea”.

Note for future reference: If you are out of mandolines and want to convey intentions to someone – organ and oboe work in a pinch. The orchestral color here was exquisite, but it was not the French style that I would usually associate with the word – it had a matte kind of gleam, more at ease, not going for big Italian drama, but still very concise, anchored by a gentle kind of warmth. Like the favorite tweed jacket with the elbow patches that is fit for Pitti, but also really comfortable? The measured grace of the choir – once more on display in “Piena nectare” – echoed this approach.

The only detour from this was perhaps the amped-up drama in Juditha’s Killer Accompagnato that details the murder of Holofernes, and Petrone’s more dramatic takes, including both her preceding “Non ita reducem” (“Never send a man to do a woman’s job.”) and her final “Si fulgida per te”, where Petonre’s handling of “refulsit alma pax” simply got the sighing note, “Oh, Abra.”

In turn, Vagaus’ discovery of the beheaded Holofernes had more drama in the pit – to a point of overpowering Doyle’s voice – than in the singing, despite an engaged performance by Doyle.
The final moment of the evening then, aided by some nice closing-out swing in the choir, belonged to Ozia: the High Priest had also absconded with Eisenstein’s pantouffles in the meantime and told it like it is, with the same relaxed competence that characterized the performance throughout.

A very enjoyable evening of Vivaldi, first and foremost, and with a few new entries on the personal Travel List (Renard, Petrone, Kielland). But it was also – in a week the world became a little more hostile towards the usual minorities – a balm on my queer soul.

42 thoughts on “Watteau, gaily: Vivaldi’s “Juditha triumphans” at Theater an der Wien”

    1. and it only got better from there. Once again you’ve made me want to experience an opera I’d never even heard of til reading your blog. We need all the balm of goodness our queer little hearts can handle.

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        1. a package worth writing home about. The work per so comes with a lot of subtext and it’s not that she show was designed to be nothing but queer (I think), but it didn’t shy away from offering the possibility to be read as such and how often do we get that, really? I wish I could bottle up the energy of this evening and keep it on the shelf for dark days ahead.

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            1. and it could be ultra femme/femme, with all the flower dresses in the world, and still be really, really gay.
              I mean, if you put all women in all dresses on the stage, how can that not have an undertone of gay in this piece? And how much energy must it cost to kill each and every bit of subtext? Did they use another libretto??!! Most of what Holofernes says to Juditha could be translated to *drool*, and most of what Vagaus sings towards/about Holofernes could be translated to *crushing out on my boss* and most of what Abra and Juditha say to each other, WELL (lady queer level: AdoptingStrayLabPuppiesAtAnIndigoGirlsConcertWithAPotluck)

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            2. nope, not with the group i got. it was really frustrating. Abra was all the time smiling “beautifully” at anything and everyone in the audience, so nobody knew what she was singing about (sad/happy). Juditha was madly navigating the low range and wildly launching into high range for ornamentation without making any sense (in my head). Holofernes was so weak (in heft) and also couldn’t go down in range, you could hardly know anything she was singing about. All very feminine looking yet all in the oblivious “straight” world in beautiful dress.. (sorry for ranting again, everytime i remember this night i get upset). And then most importantly the conductor just plowed through them all in “smoothy” fashion to make sure we know early music is “soothing”. quite criminal was the harpsichord trampling through the poor mezzos fighting in the low range. the highlight was of course A.Forsythe swaggering across as Vagaus conquering all the women and men.
              (i’m having high hope it will be significantly different next week. But it has to, you really need a conductor who knows a bit about early music — i think you said that.. and we’re getting Macon! and the venice baroque orchestra!)

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            3. Marcon!
              He’s the one who has the Concertgebouw one on YT, right? With Nesi and Gauvin and Custer? You are on the safe side, I would say. No danger of smoothness!

              (and yeah, I get the frustration because if anything, this is high drama, and a lot of it is about affection – whether you read it as platonic, or not, but it is people relating to each other and that should be there no matter what you wear! I guess some issue is that some people don’t understand Latin well enough to know what they’re singing? And just book it down as “ah, well, it’ll be somewhthing churchy”?!)

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            4. i have no idea. i think it’s your responsibility as singers to also communicate music.. i can’t figure if it’s a US thing or not because i don’t see this often when i travel to europe? bedtime for me, but let me just drop off that experience in case you’re curious, for comparison to see the huuuuuge contrast to this fantastic review you have here! I mean anyone reading this review of yours would be drooling for a live experience with Juditha! i’m most convinced the conductor is the most important one in all of this (and please, contraltos or mezzos with break up high or something, and orchestra not drowning out mezzos, we’re not asking for too much you know :-). compare to this super lovely experience you had )

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    2. just found this – there are people with far better camera equipment at shows, fortunately (I usually leave my money at the box office already). So, there you go – #VagausAird!

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      1. It’ll be like collecting Pokemon, but with contraltos 🙂 (“I’ve got a mezzo in a tux!” – “I’ve got a contralto with mad coloratura!”)

        >

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  1. Your descriptions are the best – I totally need to go look up any production photos that might be available, because outfits. Also, now I am following that Twitter account. Because I need even more daily gay.

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  2. i am still very puzzled why there is not more casting of low voices. I am quite sure they are out there! V.Genaux has a quite “sonorous” lower range, as one of her fans described it on tube
    Was M.Ernman sick?

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    1. Ernman was out with strep and sent regards and apologies from Sweden (King: “she says she’s also really mad at whomever invented strep.”).

      I thought some more about casting Juditha and perhaps it’s a part that simply sits uncomfortably for most current-aesthetic voices? Back in 1739, it was a contralto, but there are far fewer contraltos than mezzos out there. I had the Marcon take with Custer on for workout last night (mainly because Gauvin improves my performance 😉 ) and she is much more dramatic – so more vibrato, less flexibility, which we noted when we blogged it. Vivaldi must have written it for a remarkable individual voice.

      >

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        1. but it remains on the list!

          (also, of course since it’s Ernman 2000, Agathe will have to suffer through quite a few ð comments… then again, the Nerone should qualify as “toxic masculinity, but definitely able to carry me”, so perhaps that’ll help. :p )

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  3. i was reading this again over dinner.. so much fun, keeling over grinning..
    and am finally catching on to the tweeting exchange you have with a certain mezzo 😉 , and i recognized her as the one Dehggi hung out with last year after Poppea and snapping a photo with!

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    1. This was such a good show, and such a great mood! (And even more unapologetic on the queer vibes than the staged Fenice version)

      When I got the replacement news, my brain first came up with “Valletto! Dehggi… drinks?”.

      Always lovely when singers are supportive of their varied fanbases, including ours. (She said, trying for decorum, while pondering to move underground and secretly screaming into her fist)

      >

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      1. (and after reshuffling the deck, i’ve now settled with Concertgebouw as music for debugging)
        (for the whole week somehow i was very confused.. blame it on short of sleep thanks to ()*&$# policies.. but i kept getting Silla and Juditha mixed up in your reviews and kept thinking Genaux and Prina was in Juditha! and Silla is a piece by some other baroque composers.. it wasn’t until i finally listened to it last night and thought it sounded really Händel.. and was confused why they kept talking nonstop about Händel during the intermission.. until i re-read the cast and title.. another reason we need that Silla out soon 😉 . Oh ja, it also got me confused with the Silla we saw in TADW last april..)

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