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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): La Giuditta, oratorio in 2 parts

Adriana Fernández (Ozia), Céline Ricci (Giuditta), soprano; Martín Oro (Oloferne), alto; Vincenzo Di Donato (Achiorre), tenor; Bruno Rostand (Sacerdote Ebro), bass
Le Parlement de Musique - Strasbourg
Dir: Martin Gester

rec: Oct 2 - 6, 2004, Walbourg (Alsace, F), Abbaye St Walbourg
Ambronay Éditions - AMY004 (© 2005) (77'07")

Judith figures in quite a number of musical dramas of the 17th and 18th centuries. Her seduction and killing of Holofernes, the head of the army besieging the city of Betulia, was very appropriate to create a musical drama. In the 18th century the oratorios of Antonio Vivaldi (Judita triumphans) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Betulia liberata) are the best-known examples of musical dramas on this subject.

Alessandro Scarlatti has written two oratorios on Judith. The first was written for 5 solo voices and instruments, the second for 3 voices and instruments. The former version is recorded here. The text was written by cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. It was probably first performed in Rome in 1693, when Scarlatti worked in Naples. As a result he didn't known exactly what singers he was writing for or under what circumstances the performance would take place.

The oratorio in Italy had been developed by Giacomo Carissimi around the middle of the 17th century and had become an important instrument in the hands of the Counter-Reformation. Those oratorios were rather small in size and written in Latin. But since the end of the 17th century composers started to write oratorios in the vernacular. These were considerably longer than the older models of Carissimi and also much more dramatic. Apart from the fact that they were mostly not staged and divided into two parts, there are not that many differences with contemporary operas. In fact one could call them 'sacred operas' as Xavier Carrčre does in his programme notes.

The arias in this oratorio are rather short and of various structure. Only some arias are written in dacapo form, some don't have a repeat and some are strophic. The instrumental ensemble is also rather small: mostly only strings and bc are involved. In one instance a trumpet is used and in one aria Scarlatti writes two recorder parts. He uses the instruments in a telling way. The recorders are used when Judith lullabies Holofernes. At the beginning of the second scene of the first part we meet Holofernes: his aria is embraced by a 'Sinfonia bellica', and here the trumpet plays. But when Judith, in her first aria 'Trombe guerriere' sings: "Trumpets of war, why be silent?", the trumpet is indeed silent.

The dramatic character of a work like this doesn't only depend on the story but also on the way the protagonists are portrayed. In this oratorio there are two pairs of strongly opposing characters. The first are Judith and Ozias, the ruler of Betulia: Ozias is wavering and basically weak, and is ready to surrender, whereas Judith is strong, not only in character but also in her faith in God. The other pair consists of Holofernes and the captain of his army, Achior. The former is rude and convinced that he is going to besiege Betulia, but his captain feels increasingly unhappy about Holofernes' bragging and rudeness. In the second part we learn that he defects to Betulia; it turns out he belongs to the people of Israel and believes in the God.

The contrast between Judith and Ozias is reflected in the scoring, which is especially important as both roles are for a soprano. Céline Ricci has a strong voice which she uses to good effect in her recitatives and arias. Adriana Fernández has a much sweeter voice and she portrays the wavering Ozias very well. Martín Oro's voice is a bit too weak and soft-grained for the role of Holofernes. I had liked more sharp edges and a bit more bite. Vincenzo Di Donato gives a good account of the role of the captain; very impressive is the powerful recitative 'Vanne superbo', followed by the intimate aria 'Della Patria io torno' ("I return to the bosom of my country, where I hope for consolation"). Very sensitively the singer is accompanied here by the lute only.

In short, this is a fine performance of an oratorio which Alessandro Scarlatti considered his best. It is another addition to the growing number of his oratorios which meet increased interest in our time - and rightly so.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Le Parlement de Musique

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