Alessandro Scarlatti was one of the most important Italian composers
of oratorios in the decades around 1700. His early examples were
written on Latin texts 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 others
followed in 1685.
In 1693 Scarlatti set two libretti to music, one of which was La
. 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
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 (Judita triumphans
) and Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart (Betulia liberata
) were also attracted
to the story. Scarlatti's oratorio recorded here is called the Cambridge
, as the manuscript is preserved in the Rowe Music
Library of King's College, 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 da capo
form. The singers are mostly supported
by the basso continuo alone, with the strings playing the ritornellos.
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 Thes include a lack of synchronisation between singers
and orchestra now and then, as well as some intonational problems
from the strings.
The three singers all have 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
Johan van Veen