Boston Baroque's current season leans rather heavily on greatest hits of the repertoire such as "Don Giovanni," "Messiah," and Beethoven's Fifth. But music director Martin Pearlman also has a nose for sniffing out music that flies a bit below the radar screen -- not exactly obscure but performed rarely enough to perk up the ears. Last year in the rediscovery department was Cherubini's noble yet neglected C minor Requiem (just out on CD); this season it is Vivaldi's only surviving oratorio, "Juditha Triumphans," which the group performed vibrantly on Saturday night in Jordan Hall.
It is a lovely and somewhat peculiar work, written in 1716 for the girls of the orphanage where Vivaldi worked, and labeled "A Sacred Military Oratorio." It adapts a story from the apocrypha featuring Juditha, a Jewish widow who, in order to save her embattled city, seduces and later beheads Holofernes , a general of Nebuchadnezzar's army. The libretto by Giacomo Cassetti gets pretty gory -- in one recitative, Judith urges her servant Abra to put the general's severed head in a bag as they make their escape -- and Vivaldi's vocal writing sometimes seems more concerned with florid display than with deeply probing the complexities of his characters' plights. But the music is consistently imaginative -- and occasionally breathtaking -- in its use of orchestral color.
For many of the individual arias, Vivaldi carves out wonderfully distinctive worlds unto themselves, often by pulling out solo instruments from the orchestra. Most extraordinary on Saturday night, the second of two performances, was the moving aria "Veni, veni, me sequere fida" in which Juditha compares her lament to that of a turtle dove, and from the orchestra arises the remarkable voice of the chalumeau, a clarinet-like instrument with a more reedy but beautiful and yes, dove-like, timbre as expertly rendered by Nina Stern . In other arias, Vivaldi likewise enfolds the cries from his characters' tender hearts in similarly delicate obbligato writing for oboe and organ, for viola d'amore, and even for mandolin.
On Saturday, Juditha was admirably sung by Ann McMahon Quintero with an attractively dark and somber mezzo, though she seldom pushed her arias to their outer expressive limits. Phyllis Pancella was a charismatic general Holofernes, pouring out deeply felt yet elegant phrases with plenty of rich tone. Angela Niederloh was persuasive as Abra, but the singer who inhabited her character most completely was Amanda Forsythe as Vagaus, the general's servant. Her singing was self-possessed, her tone light and pure, and her coloratura was not only nimble but well-integrated into the expressive arc of the particular aria rather than serving as merely decorative filigree. When she swore revenge through the lightning runs of "Armatae face," you really believed her.
For his part, Pearlman led with brisk efficiency, duly showcasing his singers, the very fine chorus, and the distinctive soloists that emerge from the orchestra. "Juditha" may not be displacing the "Four Seasons" from the soundtrack at your local mall anytime soon, but Boston Baroque deserves much credit for bringing this fascinating rarity to life.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.