Freeing Judith from the screens

Tempesta di Mare presents Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans

4 minute read
Baroque orchestra plays on a stage with a light wooden floor. Bragle sings in a red dress at center; Solis seated at left.
The company of 'Juditha triumphans': Mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle as Judith (center) with, from left, Tempesta di Mare concertmaster Emlyn Ngai, mezzo-soprano Gabriela Estephanie Solis, Francis Liu (principal violin), and Tempesta co-artistic director Richard Stone (theorbo). (Photo by Sarah Giampietro.)

For several seasons, Tempesta di Mare has been pulling aside the centuries-old musical curtains of Venice. On Saturday, March 16, they opened them even wider for an early-music treat: a riveting full-length concert of the seldom-heard two-act oratorio Juditha triumphans (Judith Triumphant).

Composed by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) more than 300 years ago, Juditha is the composer’s only surviving oratorio. For this compelling realization, Philadelphia’s baroque orchestra was in its usual cracking great form, playing conductorless and led musically by concertmaster Emlyn Ngai. Beautifully realized, this was compelling and eye-opening musical drama, with stunning solo turns for both singers and instrumentalists.

Women premiere “a sacred military oratorio”

An allegory, the oratorio tells the Biblical tale of a young Jewish widow living in a city (Bethulia, standing in for Venice) besieged by foreign troops. To persuade Holofernes, the invading army’s general, to retreat, Judith visits him in the enemy camp. Smitten, he wines and dines her, to which she reluctantly submits, but when he falls into a drunken stupor mid-seduction, she grabs his sword, beheads him, and frees her people.

Vivaldi wrote Juditha triumphans (subtitled “a sacred military oratorio”) for the fabled female musicians of the Ospedale della Pietà, the orphanage and residential facility in Venice where the composer taught. Not permitted to publicly sing or play “inappropriate” instruments like woodwinds and strings, the women were hidden behind screens for their entire careers, never visible to the public who flocked to hear these musical stars, famed throughout Europe.

Tempesta’s printed program listed the 61 resident musicians—singers, teachers, and instrumentalists—who lived at the Pietà in 1716, the year of Juditha’s premiere. Raised without fathers, they were known only by their first names. The first production was led by a 58-year-old violinist, Menghina, and the company ranged in age from 17 to 73.

Musical heft, drama, and character

Backed by thrilling instrumentals, Juditha Triumphans has four powerfully written virtuoso roles, and Vivaldi gives equal musical heft, dramatic weight, and individualized characterizations to each. In this remarkable Tempesta performance, all four singers were stellar.

Mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle magisterially sang the title role of Judith, moving smoothly from seeming sincerity as she staged her seduction to steely resolve as she completed her bloody task. It was a magnificently sculpted, frequently breathtaking performance.

Close-up on Bragle, a white woman with brown hair and glasses, singing animatedly from a handheld score in a binder.
Meg Bragle as Judith in a rehearsal of Tempesta’s 'Juditha triumphans.' (Photo by Sarah Giampietro.)

Kirsten Sollek, no stranger to Tempesta, sang the role of the general Holofernes with her trademark artistry. A true contralto, Sollek has the convincing vocal heft and artistic vigor for this demanding trouser role.

The soprano role of Vagaus, Holofernes’s servant, is filled with lyrical, highly ornamented arias, demanding a supple virtuosity that Rebecca Myers delivered with fearless elegance. And as Judith’s devoted handmaiden Abra, mezzo-soprano Gabriela Estephanie Solís sang with warmth, clarity, and a gorgeous tone that made the role come alive. UPenn’s Collegium Musicum, a small vocal ensemble directed by Bragle, ably sang six choral sections that, as in Greek drama, comment or reflect on the action.

Vivaldi’s compelling characters

Periodically, Vivaldi backs his orchestral forces down and draws out a solo player or two for remarkably colorful, intimate miniatures. Sometimes these accompanied a singer, but often they simply gave gorgeous color. The surprising instrumental interludes (including some from Tempesta co-artistic directors Richard Stone on lute and Gwyn Roberts on recorder) were one of the unexpected beauties of the work.

The bellicose Holofernes is softened (musically and dramatically) as he falls for the beautiful Judith, at first charming and ingratiating. But she hardens as she readies for her gruesome task, and Vivaldi effects these character reversals with musical acumen and even some wit. The Latin libretto (with helpful supertitles) by Giacomo Cassetti (1682-1757) has some clever wordplay that periodically drew giggles from the audience.

We are most accustomed to hearing Vivaldi’s stunning concertos like Four Seasons, so it was a revelation to hear a work of his filled with programmatic and transfixing descriptive music, a dramatic gift to the singers. Whether in full view of the audience here or behind the curtains of the Pietà, Vivaldi affords his performers the ability to craft compelling characters.

A masterful expansion

The concert was held at UPenn’s Irvine Auditorium, much larger than many early music venues. Even with its good acoustics, there were some balance problems. The chorus, staged behind the orchestra, was aurally eclipsed in the several bombastic military sections featuring timpani and trumpets, including the rousing choral finale.

In pre-concert remarks from the stage, Roberts (who wrote the excellent program notes) said that the women of the Pietà also ran rehearsals, chose concert repertoire, and taught one another. Their building in Venice is now a hotel, with the grand marble staircase that led to the third-floor music room, the site of their concerts, still in use.”

Of course, it’s very gratifying to attend a concert or play or exhibition and have your expectations met, or even exceeded. But it’s another thing entirely, and a thrilling one, when a performance upends your knowledge. This masterful production did just that, allowing an expanded appreciation of Vivaldi, his glorious work, and his world. Tempesta triumphans!

What, When, Where

Juditha triumphans. By Antonio Vivaldi, led by concertmaster Emlyn Ngai. Penn Collegium Musicum; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano; Kirsten Sollek, contralto; Rebecca Myers, soprano; and Gabriela Estephanie Solís, mezzo-soprano. Tempesta di Mare. March 16, 2024, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium, 3401 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. (215) 755-8776 or


The Irvine Auditorium is a wheelchair-accessible venue.

Masks were not required.

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