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

Sophie Landy (Giuditta), soprano; RaphaŽl Pichon (Nutrice), alto; Carl Ghazarossian (Oloferne), bass
Ensemble Baroque de Nice
Dir: Gilbert Bezzina

rec: March 6 - 9, 2008, Nice, …glise St-Martin-St-Augustin
Dynamic - CDS 596 (© 2009) (74'20")

Alessandro Scarlatti was one of the most important Italian composers of oratorios in the decades around 1700. His first oratorios were written on a Latin text as was common in the 17th century. Unfortunately these have been lost. In 1683 his first oratorio on an Italian text was performed, Agar et Ismaele esiliati. Two other oratorios followed in 1685.

In 1693 Scarlatti set two libretti to music, one of which was La Giuditta. It was scored for five voices, strings and bc, and the libretto was written by cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. In 1697 Scarlatti returned to the subject, and composed another oratorio with the same title, this time for three solo voices, strings and bc. It was not a reworking of the previous one, as the libretto of this work was written by Pietro Ottoboni's father Antonio.

The story is about Judith, who seduces and then kills Holofernes, the head of the army besieging the city of Betulia. The subject was highly suitable to create a musical drama, and in the 18th century Antonio Vivaldi (Juditha triumphans, RV 645) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Betulia liberata, KV 118) were also attracted to this story. Scarlatti's oratorio recorded here is called the Cambridge Giuditta, as the manuscript is preserved in the Rowe Music Library of King's College in Cambridge.

There are just three roles: Judith (Giuditta), the Nurse (Nutrice) and Holofernes (Oloferne). The oratorio is in two parts: the first is about Judith preparing for the seduction and killing of Holofernes and her arrival in the army camp. When Holofernes gives in to her charms Judith sings: "Ho vinto" (I have conquered). In the second part she lulls Holofernes to sleep, with the help of her nurse, who sings a story about the 'Hebrew Hercules', Samson. When Holofernes is asleep, Judith takes his sword and cuts his head off. She returns to the city and sings the praise of God.

The work begins with a short Sinfonia in three sections, and then follows a sequence of recitatives and arias and a couple of duets. Most arias are rather short, and 14 of the 22 arias are written in dacapo form. The singers are mostly supported by the basso continuo alone, with the strings playing the ritornellos. But there are some arias in which the strings have a more prominent part. One of them is the very first, 'Turbe timide', depicting the anger of Judith, but unfortunately they are hardly audible. Notable is the aria of Judith in the first part, 'Chi m'addita', where she is accompanied by strings (without basso continuo) which play descending figures on the text: "Who can show me, for pity's sake, where to find peace in the midst of war?" The aria is interrupted by a recitative by the nurse. Also remarkable is the aria of Judith in the second part, 'The che desti', which contains a virtuosic obbligato part for the violin.

This is a live performance which was staged in a church. The booklet mentions Gilbert Blin as being responsible for the direction, set-designing, costumes and lighting. That doesn't make sense as there is nothing to see here. There are some noises from the stage but that is not disturbing in any way; it rather enhances the idea of listening to a live event. More serious are the technical shortcomings, like a lack of synchronisation between singers and orchestra now and then, as well as some intonation problems from the strings.

The three singers have all nice voices which are well-suited to this repertoire. The soprano and alto sing some duets and their voices blend well. But the performance as a whole is rather subdued and not very dramatic. The tenor is the most theatrical of the three. He sings with expression and shows a good sense of drama. One of the reasons this performance is a bit bland is that the recitatives are generally taken too slow, with too little rhythmic freedom. The performance needed a more lively interaction and a more extraverted interpretation from in particular Sophie Landy. While listening I was imagining what a singer like Roberta Invernizzi would make of the part of Judith.

On the whole the instrumental ensemble plays well but is a bit bland. The basso continuo section does a good job. The passage where Judith cuts Holofernes' head off is really dramatic, largely due to the excellent playing of the basso continuo.

During the production process something has gone awry: the recitative 'Ecco le tende Assire' (track 12) has been inserted twice, in this track and also at the end of the previous track. It is just 13 seconds, but it is unworthy of a professional recording company.

This oratorio is a fine piece and deserves a really good and dramatic performance. The present recording fails to deliver that.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Baroque de Nice

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