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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 – 1725)
La Giuditta, Oratorio (pre-1716)
Edited by Estévan Velardi
Judith – Rosita Frisani (soprano)
Nurse – Marco Lazzŕra (alto)
Holofernes – Mario Nuvoli (tenor)
Alessandro Stradella Consort/Estévan Velardi
rec. 1995, Oratorio di S. Erasmo a Sori, Genova, Italy

Alessandro Scarlatti, father of the better-known harpsichord master Domenico, has gone down to the history-books as primarily an opera composer and the founder of the Neapolitan school. The list of his operas, written between 1679 and 1721, contains 65 works. However, he wrote close to five hundred chamber-cantatas for solo voice, and a number of oratories, plus orchestral music – in other words an industrious craftsman.

Giuditta of the title is the Italian form of Judith. The story of Judith and Holofernes is told in the Book of Judith, apocryphal in Jewish and Protestant circles but included in the Catholic Bible. Judith is a pious young widow, who lives in the Jewish city of Bethulia. The city is besieged by the Assyrian army, led by General Holofernes. Judith decides to save the city and her people. She dresses up and goes to the Assyrian camp, where she manages to contact the general under the pretence that she has important information. When Holofernes sees the beautiful woman, his carnal desires are awakened and he invites her to dine, hoping to afterwards seduce her. The biblical text says: “Holofernes was so enchanted with her that he drank far more wine than he had drunk on any other day in his life” (Judith 12:20). Judith saw the chance, when he was inebriated enough. She grabbed his sword and beheaded him! This is a scene that has been frequently depicted in Renaissance and Baroque art, most famously perhaps by Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. The latter painting, to be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, is more literal, insofar as Judith is assisted by a woman, as in the Bible text, whereas Caravaggio depicts a man-servant. The less bloody picture on the cover to this recording is by Pietro Pacilli.

The story became very popular among librettists in the early history of oratorio and Scarlatti set two different texts several years apart. The first Giuditta, probably first performed in Naples in 1695, was to a text by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphilj and had previously been used by Carlo Francesco Cesarini. Facts about the second version – the one recorded here – are rather diffuse. What is known is the author of the libretto: “the Most Excellent Lord and Prince D. Antonio Ottoboni”. Musicologist Lino Bianchi found it in the Rowe Music Library in Cambridge and states that it was composed “many years after” the Naples version –but not later than 1716. The libretto is mediocre but musically it is definitely of great interest. It was written for three voices and string orchestra with continuo. Structurally it consists of an overture, a number of arias – most of them very brief – and a handful of duets, tied together with recitatives. In other words, the layout is very much the same as in the operas of the period, which we know not least from Handel’s works. Recitatives are dramatically inventive, revealing the composer’s fine sense for expressivity and characterisation.

The overture is rather typical of Scarlatti’s overtures at large: a fanfare-like, energetic allegro followed by a largo and another allegro in dancing 3/8-time – all of this done in less than three-and-a-half minutes. The orchestra also has important functions in the vocal numbers: in several of them there are quite extended ritornellos. The brevity of most of the arias doesn’t exclude musical excellence, the accompaniments are sensitively varied, depending on the dramatic situation, and there are melodious niceties aplenty. Possibly the highlight of the whole work comes near the beginning of the second part. It is a fairly long aria – playing-time more than five minutes – where Giuditta sings Non ti curo o libertŕ (tr. 30). There is a long orchestral introduction and a long ritornello in the middle and the Nurse comes in for the final bars, where they sing in unison until the end. Giuditta also has the lion’s share of the arias (10), and is also involved in the four duets. Rosita Frisani has an agreeable voice and sings with a great deal of involvement. She is also required to execute some coloratura singing, which she does with expertise. Marco Lazzŕra’s alto is rather plummy and does full justice to the beautiful and magical aria Dormi! (tr. 41) before the murder of Holofernes. I would expect this formidable warrior to be sung by a big black basso profondo, but instead we encounter the light lyrical tenor Mario Nuvoli. It doesn’t seem dramatically relevant. Still, he does what he can and is quite expressive in Quella terra (tr. 32), a short, fast and intense aria, where the orchestra is prominent with comments to the dramatic situation. After the beheading of Holofernes, Giuditta and the Nurse sing a duet, Spunta l’alba (tr. 45) where the music dances with joy and Giuditta gets the last word with the aria Di Bettulia avrai la sorte (tr. 47), jubilant and full of coloratura.

The playing of the orchestra, on original instruments, is expertly attuned to the music and the recording is worthy of the occasion. The fly in the ointment is the absence of texts. The back-cover of the jewel-case refers the listener to the label’s website for the texts, but the homepage says: “Extensive liner notes are included in the booklet, as well as the original texts.” The first statement is correct, the second is not!

Despite this error readers with an interest in early baroque oratorios should be able to find a lot to enjoy on this disc.

Göran Forsling



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