11 May 2010

Preview of the 2010 Salzburg Whitsun Festival: “the old Oratorio betulia liberata” Mozart’s and Jommelli’s Compositions on the Tale of Judith

The 2010 Salzburg Whitsun Festival takes place from May 21 to 24 and will present masterworks from the Neapolitan School as well as an azione sacra by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Betulia liberata, which will be performed by Riccardo Muti together with his Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini. The stage director will be Marco Gandini. Riccardo Muti will juxtapose Mozart's masterwork with the eponymous oratorio by Niccolò Jommelli, one of the most important representatives of the Neapolitan school. The libretto for both settings of Betulia is by Pietro Metastasio.

Other highlights of the 2010 Whitsun Festival will be the recital by violinist Giuliano Carmignola, who interprets sonatas by Italian baroque masters together with his artist friends; the concert performance of Johann Adolph Hasse's Intermezzo tragico Piramo e Tisbe with Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante; and the focus "Film and Music", which features a 1927 Neapolitan silent movie by Eugenio Perego, accompanied by live film music composed and performed by Olga Neuwirth, Burkhard Stangl and Angélica Castelló.

 "the old Oratorio betulia liberata" 

Mozart's and Jommelli's Compositions on the Tale of Judith 

Often, what may seem historical and dated at first glance turns out to be extraordinarily relevant for current times upon closer inspection. Such, for example, is the case with Betulia liberata, in which salvation from an apparently hopeless situation is brought by a heroic woman. This is exactly what Mozart's azione sacra KV 118, inspired by the Old Testament's Book of Judith, is about: without the courage of the widow Judith, the city of Bethulia in Judea, under siege from the Assyrians, would have been doomed. She sneaks into the enemy camp, wins the trust of the enemy's commander Holofernes, cuts his head off and returns home with this trophy. In a panic, the Assyrians flee the city, and Judith is celebrated as a liberator.
Mozart was on his first journey through Italy with his father when he received the commission for this oratorio. That, in any case, can be deduced from a letter written by his father Leopold on March 14, 1771 from Vienna: "We saw what we could of Padua in one day, since we had no peace, as Wolfg: had to play in 2 places. He also got work, having to compose an Oratorio for Padua, and must do this as the opportunity arises." The commission came from a nobleman, Giuseppe Ximenes Prince of Aragona, in whose house many musical academies took place. It is not known what exactly inspired him for the commission, and also unknown how Mozart encountered the libretto and when he began setting it.
Betulia liberata was indeed performed during the Lent season of 1771, but not Mozart's version, rather that by Giuseppe Caligari. The world premiere of Mozart's interpretation was only planned for the following year in Padua, as Leopold Mozart reported to Count Giovanni Luca Pallavicini on July 19, 1771. We do not know why this never happened. Years later, there would have been another opportunity for a performance. When Mozart was asked to write an oratorio for a concert by the Wiener Tonkünstler-Sozietät (Viennese Musical Artists Society), an organization devoted to supporting professional musician's offspring in need, he remembered his early work and asked his father to "send him the old Oratorio betulia liberata". But this also remained without consequences, and thus, at our current state of research we must assume that Mozart's Betulia liberata was never performed during the composer's lifetime.

The work's genesis goes back to the year 1734, when the libretto was first set by Joseph Reutter the Younger. The memory of the Turkish siege on Vienna in 1683 was still vivid. If the courageous Polish leader Johann Sobieski had not led his supplementary army to its defense, Vienna would have become a part of the Ottoman Empire, and the Hapsburgs' dream of becoming a European superpower would have come to a quick end. However, history took a different course – similarly as in Judith's case. Whoever takes his fate into his own hands courageously will overcome even a hopeless situation – that was the message Emperor Charles VI wished to convey to his people, in the customary shape of an artful parable. Thus, he commissioned his court poet Pietro Metastasio to turn the tale of Judith into an oratorio libretto. Ultimately, about forty composers were to write oratorios based on this text.
For Metastasio, it was not unusual that his libretto should prove to be so popular. Between 1720 and 1835 alone, his 27 drammi per musica were set more than 800 times, while the texts for his eight oratorios formed the basis for compositions throughout several European states more than 300 times. Metastasio was the most famous and most successful librettist of his time, even if he had to realize towards the end of his life that musical development had long begun to seek out other texts. What was desired, not least for reasons of parsimony, were no longer heroic, but intimate operas, and the "theater of arias", i.e. opera that had been influenced by the classicism of French tragedy, was no longer in demand after the opera reforms of Christoph Willibald Gluck and Niccolò Jommelli.
Until then, the lawyer and poet, who was born in 1698 in Rome and died in 1782 in Vienna, knew exactly what he owed his times and his commissioners. From 1720 to 1730, he worked as a freelance theatrical writer; for a decade, he served the Hapsburg Emperor Charles VI (1711–1740) as court poet, and afterwards he held the same position at the court of his daughter, Empress Maria Theresia. Metastasio was born as a son of the Papal soldier and merchant Felice Trapassi; his godfather, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, took charge of his education. He brought him into contact with Gian Vincenzo Gravina, one of the most influential Roman jurists and philologists. The latter took him into his household and taught him and other pupils jurisprudence and archaeology. Ultimately, he adopted his pupil and changed his original surname, Trapassi, to the Greek form Metastasio. Upon his death, Gravina left him his library and a large sum of money. When other heirs contested this, Metastasio renounced the inheritance and went to Naples, where he planned to live as a lawyer and poet.
In Naples, his contacts with the aristocratic Pignatelli family also paved the way for his later career in Vienna. Marianna d'Althann Pignatelli had married a close confidante of Emperor Charles VI and was a lady-in-waiting to Empress Elisabeth; her brother-in-law was Viceroy of Naples starting in 1722. In Naples, Metastasio also began his lifelong friendship with the composer Johann Adolph Hasse and the castrato Carlo Broschi, who became famous as Farinelli. The great soprano Marianna Benti Bulgarelli, known as "La Romanina", finally encouraged him to try his hand at evening-length libretti after he had completed some smaller occasional commissions for the Neapolitan aristocracy.
Once again, it was Marianna d'Althann Pignatelli who pulled the strings that got Metastasio appointed Imperial Court Poet in Vienna. Here, he became the successor of the Venetian Apostolo Zeno, who had also spoken in his favor.

In his Betulia liberata, Mozart follows the model of the two-part Neapolitan oratorio with six or seven arias and a choir that does not only participate in the finales, but also as part of the arias. Historically, the oratorio had developed from the services of the Brotherhood of Saint Filippo Neri (1515–1595) in Rome, which took place at a prayer hall called oratorio during the mid-16th century. On the basis of these laudes, the former Florentine Court Theater Superintendent Emilio de' Cavalieri and his Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo (1600) set in motion the development of this genre, which was to undergo numerous transformations during the course of the centuries.
Originally, because of their religious topics and the foregoing of scenic performances, oratorios were performed as a substitute for operas during Lent. Handel did not only use biblical tales for his oratorios, but also legends and myths of Antiquity, assigning central roles to the choir. Soon, the composers' main creative interest was devoted to vocal instead of instrumental music.
The contents of the oratorio expanded. Besides sacred and secular oratorios – here, Haydn's Seasons became an important trendsetter – the spectrum has come to include dogmatic or political oratorios, such as Benjamin Britten's War Requiem or Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa.

Given this perspective, it is not a dramaturgical limitation if the 2010 Salzburg Whitsun Festival strays from the familiar path of presenting a Neapolitan opera and a great Neapolitan oratorio, juxtaposing two works conceived from the Neapolitan oratorio tradition instead. Especially since they are devoted to the same subject and the choice of composers also illustrates the connection between Naples and Austria. After all, Mozart's Betulia liberata of 1771 will be performed alongside the version that Niccolò Jommelli completed in 1743, which is also based on Metastasio's libretto.

Jommelli, who was born in 1714 in Aversa near Naples and died in 1774 in Naples, is not only considered one of the precursors of the classical style of Haydn and Mozart, but also a major opera reformer. When Mozart heard Jommelli's Armida abbandonata on his first journey through Italy in Naples, he may have judged it to be "beautiful, but too learned and too dry and old-fashioned for the theater", but in 1787, when he wrote the scenes "Bella mia fiamma" – "Resta, o cara" KV 528 for Josefine Duschek, he was noticeably inspired by Jommelli's earlier setting. Mozart's judgment had changed: "The man has his genre in which he is brilliant, and thus we will have to leave well enough alone to push him out of a field in which he is a master." That was his summary of the opera composer Jommelli, who was producing between one and two opere serie a year during his 16 years as Court Music Director at the Stuttgart Opera and later also turned to opera buffa. Mozart's first encounter with Jommelli took place as early as July 10, 1763 in Ludwigsburg. Leopold Mozart was driven to remark vituperatively that the "Ober Capellmeister Jomelli" was "doing his best to drive out all Germans from this court"; however, Jommelli could not help but remark about Wolfgang Amadeus "that it is quite astounding and almost unbelievable that a child of German birth should have such musical genius and so much spirit and passion."
Walter Dobner


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