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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791): Betulia liberata (KV 118 / 74c), azione sacra

Marelize Gerber (Amital), Ulrike Hofbauer (Cabri), Barbara Kraus (Carmi), soprano; Margot Oitzinger (Giuditta), contralto; Christian Zenker (Ozìa), tenor; Markus Volpert (Achior), baritone
L'Orfeo Barockorchester
Dir: Michi Gaigg

rec: August 6 - 9, 2012, Stiftskirche Waldhausen (A)
Challenge Classics - CC72590 (2 CDs) (© 2013) (2.02'55")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Betulia liberata is one of the least-known vocal compositions by Mozart. His setting of the libretto by Pietro Metastasio dates from 1771 and was apparently composed at the request of an Italian aristocrat. Very few recordings are available, and to my knowledge this is only the second recording of this work on period instruments. The only other recording, conducted by Riccardo Favero, was released by Brilliant Classics, but I have never heard it.

Betulia Liberata is about the city of Betulia in Israel which is beleaguered by the Assyrians. Its situation is becoming more precarious by the day, and the inhabitants begin to consider surrender. But then one of them, Judith, announces she has a plan to liberate the city. She leaves Betulia and visits Holofernes, the captain of the Assyrians. She has dinner with him, and when he is drunk she kills him with his own sword and takes his head with her to show it to the people. It is the beginning of the end of the siege of the city.

This libretto was set by many composers during the 18th century. Previously the same subject was used by Antonio Vivaldi for his oratorio Juditha triumphans, but on a different libretto. There are quite some differences between these libretti. The main difference is that there is no direct confrontation between Judith and Holofernes; the latter doesn't even appear in the story. We only hear about the way she killed Holofernes through her own account, in a long recitative. Whereas Holofernes was removed from the story by Metastasio, he introduced a new character: Achior. He is the ruler of the Ammonites and an ally of Holofernes. After a conflict with the latter he is tied to a tree near Betulia. He is found and taken hostage. The second part opens with a debate on religious matters between him and Ozìa. This episode and the monologue of Judith consist of pretty long recitatives and as a result this piece is less dramatic than Vivaldi's oratorio.

Stylistically Betulia liberata has its roots in two worlds. The dacapo arias and the secco recitatives are very much in the style of the baroque era. On the other hand, there are also arias in which the dacapo section is strongly abridged or is even absent. The orchestral score is much more dramatic than in baroque oratorios and operas. Two arias in Part Two point in the direction of what was to become standard in the classical style. The vocal pyrotechnics in 'Quel nocchier che in gran procella' (Amital) reminded me of the aria of the Queen of the Night from Die Zauberflöte. In 'Quei moti che senti' (Carmi) there is almost no orchestral introduction: Carmi comes straight to the point and the orchestral part is highly dramatic. This aria has the traits of a scena from a classical opera.

The orchestral part is the main asset of this recording. Its dramatic character is fully explored and the playing of the orchestra is colourful and energetic. It is sometimes more dramatic than the singing of the soloists. One of the positive features of their contributions is the great amount of stylistic coherence. They all sing in period style, without incessant vibrato and with much attention to the text. The tutti episodes - either 'coro' or 'aria con il coro' - come off very well due to the perfect blending of the voices, and that is certainly not a common feature in oratorio and opera recordings.

The individual accounts of the different roles leave a mixed impression. Margot Oitzinger has a beautiful voice and she sings her part very well, but I believe she is a little too restrained. It is true that in this libretto her character is rather low-key: she rejects the praise for her actions and urges the people to thank God instead. Even so, here and there Oitzinger could have had a bit more presence. Christian Zenker doesn't make a good start: his first aria, 'D'ogni colpa la colpa maggiore' is a kind of rage aria in which he complaints about the faint-heartedness of his people. That doesn't come off at all; he forces his voice and then sounds a little like a traditional Italian opera singer. Later on in the oratorio his part has often a rather introverted and lyrical character, and here he makes a far better impression, especially in the 'arias with choir'. Marelize Gerber has some demanding arias to sing and does so admirably, in particular the aria I already referred to, 'Quel nocchier'. Markus Volpert gives a good account of the part of Achior. Barbara Kraus and Ulrike Hofbauer are convincing in their roles of Cabri and Carmi respectively and sing their respective arias nicely.

As secco recitatives take a considerable part of this oratorio their performance is vital for the overall result. I noted with satisfaction that they are taken with the necessary rhythmic freedom. In particular Christian Zencker makes much of his recitatives. However, the interaction between the protagonists in those episodes where they are involved in a dialogue, could have been more dramatic. I feel that they are a bit too static.

To sum up, I am quite happy with this recording, despite some shortcomings in the dramatic department. It is probably rather different from what we expect from Mozart's pen, but I can't see any reason why it is almost completely ignored by performers and the recording industry. This may not be the ideal performance, but it makes a strong case for this forgotten composition by the young Mozart.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Marelize Gerber
Ulrike Hofbauer
Margot Oitzinger
Markus Volpert
Christian Zenker
L'Orfeo Barockorchester

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