Toronto-based Tafelmusik is one of the world’s leading period performance ensembles, renowned internationally for its distinct, exhilarating, and soulful performances. Founded in 1979 by Kenneth [...]
Italian Oratorios: Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Caldara, Zelenka
They spoke about it
This recording offers a small sampling of the riches to be found in the Italian oratorio repertoire, as composed in Rome and Venice as well as in the Catholic courts of Vienna and Dresden. In the early baroque the word “oratorio” referred to a building—the oratory or prayer hall—in which a congregation of laymen met for spiritual exercises.
Founded by St Philip Neri in the 1550s, the Roman Congregazione dell’Oratorio spread throughout Italy. Music played a significant role in the oratories, and by the second half of the 17th century the word “oratorio” was also used to describe the new musical genre associated with the services. These oratorios were musical settings of texts drawn from the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), hagiography, or moral allegory.
The early oratorios were relatively small-scale works, written for a small instrumental ensemble with a cast of singers. They were generally composed in two sections, between which a sermon was delivered. By the turn of the 18th century oratorios were increasingly performed in secular settings, in particular the palaces of the nobility. The midpoint sermons were replaced by intermission refreshments. Opera houses were closed during the Lenten season, and oratorios proved to be the perfect substitute: the nobility could hear their favourite singers year-round. These high baroque oratorios were virtually indistinguishable from operas in form and content.
Librettos continued to draw on Biblical or allegorical subjects, but they were often as dramatic as opera librettos. Composers offered stunning arias as vehicles for the star performers, and rich scores for the full-size accompanying orchestras. The primary distinction was in the manner of presentation: although the oratorios were often performed in front of elaborate, custom-painted backdrops and with some props, they were not otherwise staged.
The Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka had studied in Italy and Vienna before taking up the position of Church composer at the court in Dresden. He composed three oratorios for the court, including Gesù al Calvario (Jesus at Calvary) in 1735, with a text by Boccardi and obviously intended for performance during Holy Week. Zelenka did not compose any operas, and the remainder of his vocal music is comprised primarily of settings of liturgical texts. The oratorios offer a taste of a more expressive Zelenka, though his trademark virtuosity and somewhat eccentric style are evident here as elsewhere. The arias “Se in te fosse viva fede” and “A che riserbano” are sung by San Giovanni.
Antonio Vivaldi composed four oratorios, only one of which has survived. Juditha triumphans was written in 1716 for performance at the Pietà. The libretto by Giacomo Cassetti is based on the story of Judith as told in the fourth book of the Apocrypha, and like other oratorios written for the Venetian conservatories, is in Latin rather than Italian.
The title page of the oratorio’s printed libretto reads “Judith Triumphant, conqueror of the barbaric Holofernes: a sacred military oratorio performed in times of war by the chorus of virgins, to be sung in the church of the Pietà.” A note explains that the characters are allegorical: Judith represents Venice; her servant Abra represents faith; Bethulia, the besieged city, represents the Church and its governor, Ozias, the Pope; the Assyrian warlord Holofernes represents the Turkish Sultan; and his servant Vagaus is a Turkish general. Venice had been at war with the Ottoman Empire since 1714, and in 1716 enjoyed two victories: at Petrovaradin (Serbia), and at the island fortress of Corfu. Cassetti took some liberties with the story of Judith to strengthen the allegory. In his version Judith approaches Holofernes, who is laying siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia, to beg for peace. Holofernes instantly falls in love and invites Judith to dine with him. Drunk with wine, he falls asleep. Judith cuts off Holofernes’ head with his own sword and escapes, freeing Bethulia and its people.
The aria “Noli, o cara” is sung by the lovesick Holofernes to Judith with an unusual accompaniment of solo oboe and obbligato organ. In the aria “Agitata infido flatu” the accompanying strings depict the fluttering of a swallow’s wings as it attempts to make its way through a fierce wind. In the manuscript score this aria is clearly marked to be sung by Holofernes, yet it is obvious from the text that it must have been meant for Judith. In the original performances at the Pietà, all of the solo roles were taken by the female singers at the Pietà (including that of the eunuch Vagaus!). During the baroque period the gender of the performers was often other than that of the roles they performed. In the spirit of the age we have taken the liberty of having a countertenor sing an aria which belonged to one of the great heroines of history, Judith.
As Vivaldi did not include a sinfonia or “introduzione” in the manuscript score of Juditha triumphans, we have chosen to include one of his many concertos for strings.
Alessandro Scarlatti was a remarkably prolific composer: his worklist includes some 70 operas, 30 serenades, 35 oratorios, 80 motets, and 700 cantatas. He divided his career between Naples and Rome, though most of the oratorios were written for Rome. Cain, alternately titled Il primo omicidio (The first murder), was the only oratorio written for Venice, in 1707, and was revived in Rome three years later. The anonymous libretto is based on the familiar story of Cain and Abel, as told in Genesis 4:1-16. We have selected four of Cain’s six arias, ranging in expression from resolve to remorse. The three-movement introduzione which opens the oratorio is a veritable mini-concerto for solo violin.
Antonio Caldara enjoyed considerable success as a composer of opera and oratorio in Venice and Rome before moving to Vienna to join the service of Emperor Charles VI in 1715. He was greatly admired at the court, and contributed one or two oratorios during each Lenten season.
The oratorio La Passione di Gesù Cristo Signor Nostro (The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ) was sung during Holy Week in 1730, a setting of a newly commissioned libretto by Pietro Metastasio, who had just been appointed to Charles’ VI entourage. “Giacchè mi tremi in seno” is the opening aria sung by the tormented Peter.
© Charlotte Nediger