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Baldassare GALUPPI (1706-1785): Jahel

Gunhild Alsvik (Debbora), Jenny Högström (Jahel), Kristine Jaunalksne (Haber), Julia Kirchner (Nabal), soprano; Dina König (Sisara), Christina Metz (Barac), contralto
Mädchenkantorei Basel; Musica Fiorita
Dir: Daniela Dolci

rec: Feb 2020, Basel, Adullamkapelle
Pan Classics - PC 10420 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (2.02'12")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alexandre Zanetta, Tatiana Cossi, horn; Katharina Heutjer, Germán Echeverri, violin; Lola Fernández, viola; Nicola Paoli, cello; Marco Lo Cicero, violone; Andrew Burn, bassoon; Daniele Caminiti, Juan Sebastián Lima, mandolin, theorbo; Rafael Bonavita, archlute; Margit Übellacker, psalterio; Daniela Dolci, harpsichord, organ

From the last quarter of the 17th century to the end of the 18th, many Italian composers contributed to the genre of the oratorio. In the early stages of the genre, such works were mostly performed during Lent, when the opera was closed, and its singers were available for oratorio performances. The fact that they took place at that time of the year also explains, why many of them - independent of the subject - ended with a reference to the passion and death of Jesus. However, there were exceptions, and one of the best-known is Antonio Vivaldi's Juditha triumphans. Its content is highly dramatic and could be easily used for an opera. Actually, stylistically there are few differences between this oratorio and Vivaldi's operas. The same is probably the case with the oratorio Jahel by Baldassare Galuppi. A comparison is less easy in this case, since Galuppi's operas are not as well-known as Vivaldi's.

After the death of Antonio Vivaldi Galuppi was the most fashionable composer from Venice. Such was his reputation that some of Vivaldi's compositions were sold under his name in order to increase sales. His father was a barber who also played the violin in small orchestras, and was probably his first teacher. Galuppi wasn't devoid of self-confidence: at the age of 16 he composed his first music, a so-called favola pastorale, but according to a contemporary witness it was a fiasco. It didn't withhold him from continuing to compose, especially music for the theatre. His skills certainly improved thanks to his studies with Antonio Lotti. At the age of 20 he was already a keyboard player of repute, and not only played in various opera orchestras but also composed substitute arias for operas by other composers. His first successes in the field of opera and oratorio date from the late 1730s.

His career started to blossom after the death of Vivaldi in 1741 and in particular when he started to adapt Neapolitan comic operas to the taste of the Venetian audiences. He also contributed some comic operas of his own. Evidence of his growing status was his appointment as vice-maestro of the cappella ducale of San Marco in 1748. This and his activities in various ospedali resulted in a large output of sacred music, although his main interest was opera. This led to the invitation to travel to St Petersburg, where he arrived in 1765. He produced a number of operas which found great approval, and he also had a strong influence on the style of composition in sacred music in Russia. He returned to Venice in 1768, and after that concentrated on sacred music.

Jahel dates from 1747 and was first performed at the Ospedale San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti. In 1772 a revised version was performed at the Ospedale di Santissimo Salvatore, also known as Incurabili. The subject matter is taken from the book of Judges in the Old Testament. The story goes as follows: "The Israelites, now twenty years in captivity under Jabin, King of Canaan, are told by the prophetess Deborah that Sisera, the Canaanite commander, will die at the hand of a woman. After diplomatic deadlock the two sides go to war and the Canaanites are defeated. Sisera dutifully fulfils the prophecy after fleeing from the battlefield and seeking sanctuary with the beautiful young heroine Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. Jael gives the exhausted commander sanctuary, probably seduces him into the bargain and, while he sleeps, nails his head to the ground with a tent peg." George Frideric Handel was one of the composers who devoted an oratorio to this episode in the history of the Jewish people; the summary of the story is from Robert King's liner-notes to his recording of this work, which was first performed in 1733. Gregor Joseph Werner, Haydn's predecessor as Kapellmeister at the Esterházy court, composed his oratorio Debora in 1760 on a German text. Galuppi used a libretto in Latin. That is rather unusual, as in his time oratorios were mostly performed in the vernacular, attesting to its similarity with contemporary opera. However, in the Ospedali oratorios were usually performed in Latin, "which gave these types of works a far-reaching universal validity", as Helen Geyer writes in the liner-notes to this production. Given that the Ospedali were the subject of interest and admiration of the many visitors from across Europe who stayed some time in Venice, this seems to make much sense, as Latin was the universal language.

The librettists of Handel's oratorios on biblical subjects treated the narrative with considerable freedom in the intererest of drama, and the author of Galuppi's libretto did the same. We meet one person who is nowhere menioned in Judges; Nabal is a general in the army of Sisera. Heber, husband of Jael, is mentioned in the biblical narrative, but does not play any role there. That is different here: he is called an Israelite commander by Helen Geyer; whether she refers here to the libretto I don't know. Fact is that he was not, as he was a Kenite, who did not belong to the Jewish people. In fact, according to Judges, the Kenites and Jabin were allies, which is the reason that Sisera seeks refuge at the tent of Jael. The biblical narrative also has little about Sisera, whereas he plays a major role here.

I already mentioned one notable feature of Jahel: the use of Latin. Another interesting thing is that it is one of quite a number of oratorios written in Venice, whose main character is a woman. That is no coincidence, according to Helen Geyer. Referring to images of female heroines in churches, schools and brotherhoods, she writes: "What is particularly striking is the focus on episodes centred around female protagonists, prophetesses or distinctive personalities in the Old Testament; frequently, entire cycles of images were created focusing on the stories of Esther, Jael, Deborah, Rachel, Ruth, Susanna, Agar and above all Judith. These female protagonists play active roles as saviours and beacons of hope in the face of apparently hopeless situations in which La Serenissima also variously believed herself to be, either of a political, financial or military nature, thereby explaining the clear preference for the deeds of redemption and hope undertaken by these female figures. (...) In the case of the oratorio Jahel, we are confronted by the situation of the War of Succession focused on the Hapsburg imperial territories and the recognition of Maria Theresia, the only daughter of Charles VI (who had died on [Oct 20,] 1740), in which Venice had taken up a neutral position. These events took place under Pietro Grimani, the 115th Doge, appointed in 1741. The following year, Maria Theresia was successful in having her spouse Francesco di Lorena, the Duke of Tuscany, crowned as the Emperor Franz/Francesco I and peace was finally established in 1748. The Adriatic coast in Dalmatia remained a major concern of Venice as this territory represented a significant stronghold both in the thwarting of the Ottoman Empire's ambitions and also in the constant struggle against the piracy of the Ustoki."

There are also musical aspects which need to be mentioned. The instrumental scoring is remarkable, as it includes two horn parts, which manifest themselves in the overture, reflecting the martial features of this oratorio. At the other end of the spectrum, as it were, we find two mandolins in an aria in the second part. Another aria includes an obbligato part for organ. Italian oratorios were dominated by secco recitatives. It is notable that Jahel includes monologues in the form of accompanied recitatives, which was unusual. The second part even opens with such a recitative, sung by Sisera.

Galuppi was the main opera composer of Venice, and if one listens to this oratorio one recognizes his dramatic talent. The drama unfolds in particular in the second part, not only in the dialogues but also within arias, some of which include strong contrasts. The aria of Jael in the second part, 'Ad murmur frondis tremulae', is a good example. Sisera has just lied down, when she sings a kind of lullaby, with the strings playing con sordino. However, in the second part she reveals her plans to the audience: "But now, O faithless one, I see you immersed in your own blood from a avenging torch of heavenly wrath."

Last but not least: the performance in the Ospedale San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, whose inhabitants - like those of the other three - were exclusively female, explains why all the solo parts are for soprano and alto. It is also notable that the two choruses, at the end of each of the two parts, are sung by a real choir. Oratorios like this one were performed in the churches connected to the Ospedali, where the singers and players were situated on the galleries, from which they could be heard but could not be seen by the visitors. The Ospedali had quite some players and singers at their disposal, and that points in the direction of a performance of choruses by a choir rather than by the soloists in ensemble, as was common practice in most 18th-century oratorios.

Daniela Dolci has allowed herself several liberties. "In order to enrich the tonal colouring of the accompaniment" she added parts for a psalterio in two arias and gave the mandolins a more prominent role in another. Even though composers were rather pragmatic in this department, I don't see any reason for such adaptations. Second, Dolci "carefully abridged" some arias, which were "extraordinary long (...) for today's listeners". I find that decision very regrettable. Such long arias are characteristic for oratorios and operas of the time, and in my view modern audiences should get used to that. It does not matter how long they are, if they are sung well - and that is the case here. Stylistically I noted a consistency which is rather rare in recordings of large-scale baroque vocal works. This performance shows that it is possible to sing according to the aesthetic ideals of the time and be dramatic and expressive at the same time. I don't need to single out one or a few singers, as they all do a very good job. Let me just say that Dina König is the perfect embodiment of Sisera and Jenny Högström is convincing in the role of Jael. The choir is very good, with some nice short solos from a few of its members. The instrumental ensemble effectively underlines the dramatic features of this work.

Galuppi's music is seldom performed. This oratorio suggests that a thorough examination of his oeuvre, a large part of which is unfortunately lost, is well deserved. This oratorio is a fine specimen of his art.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Gunhild Alsvik
Jenny Högström
Julia Kirchner
Christina Metz
Musica Fiorita

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