Mozart’s Betulia Liberata: Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques

Metastasio must have topped the charts in Padua in the early 1770s.  Performances of settings of his libretto Betulia Liberata seem to have abounded, with the Bohemian Josef Mysliveček’s account, heard in 1771, being followed by that of Paduan Giuseppe Calegari the following year.  One setting that was not enjoyed by Paduan congregations and audiences, however, was that commissioned by one Giuseppe Ximenes, Prince of Aragon, from a fifteen-year-old prodigy who happened to be touring Italy in early 1771.

On 14th March that year, Leopold Mozart wrote to his wife, from Vicenza, that his son had received a commission ‘to compose an oratorio for Padua, which he can do at his convenience’.  On 19th July, having returned to Salzburg, Leopold revealed in a letter to Count Gian Luca Pallavicino that the oratorio had been ‘commissioned by Sigr Giuseppe Ximenes, Prince of Aragona; I shall send this oratorio, when we pass through Verona, to Padua to be copied, and later return from Milan to Padua to hear the rehearsal.’

Mozart’s only oratorio was not, however, performed during his lifetime, and he did not return to Padua when his Milan sojourn ended in December.  We do not know whether the commission was withdrawn or if it was fulfilled but failed to satisfy the music-loving but culturally conservative prince.  Stanley Sadie has suggested that the intention had probably been to perform the oratorio during Lent 1772.[1]  Mozart did indeed travel through Italy again during the summer of 1771; the main purpose of this second tour was the performance in Milan of the festa teatrale Ascanio in Alba,to celebrate the marriage of the Archduke Ferdinand.  Sadie presumes that the planned performance of Betulia Liberata must have been cancelled by then.[2]

Metastasio’s text tells the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes.  The libretto was written in 1734 and performed that year in a setting by Georg Reutter, commissioned by Emperor Charles VI, in Vienna on 8th April.  Subsequently, Jommelli, Holzbauer, Gassmann, Schuster, Kozeluch, von Winter, Anfossi, Pugnani and, in 1821, Salieri, were among the 30 or more composers who turned their musical quills to Metastasio’s somewhat dry and demure account of a violent episode of biblical history.

The Caesarian Poet described Betulia Liberata as an azione sacra; Leopold Mozart called it an oratorium; in the first Köchel catalog it is labelled an Italienisches Oratorium.  The biblical book of Judith tells of war and sieges; defections and deceits; beheadings and religious conversions.  Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes, defied by the Israelites, attacks and besieges Bethulia – to which Holofernes’ ally Achior has been exiled for deigning to point out that the Israelites will not be defeated unless they offend their God.  The Bethulian ruler, Ozias, is dismayed by his people’s cowardly wish to surrender to the Assyrians but, accused by Amital of failing in his duty, agrees to submit to their request in five days if there has been no relief of their suffering.  Judith, equally appalled by the Bethulians’ spinelessness, dresses as a bride and visits Holofernes’ camp.  Feasting follows, and when the sated Holofernes sleeps, Judith cuts off his head and returns victorious, wielding her bloody trophy.  The Israelites are encouraged to fight back and defeat their oppressors.  

For Metastasio, however, this is not a tale of violent rebellion and righteous military victory.  In keeping with the ethos of opera seria, in his hands the fiery Old Testament take becomes a more sedate moral lesson, centring on the conversion of Achior to Judaism after witnessing the power of the Israelistes’ faith.  The most ‘dramatic’ element, the beheading of Holofernes, is related not enacted.  The siege and the Assyrians’ surrender are similarly described, by two consuls, Cabri and Carmi.  Of ‘action’ there is little; of moral and spiritual worthiness there is much.

But, if Metastasio’s text is somewhat drama-lite, this performance of Mozart’s oratorio by Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques, for the Aparté label, is anything but.  Turn down your volume switch before the Overture to Part 1 commences, or you risk being blown from your armchair by the swirl of Sturm und Drang tempestuousness and vigour.  The terrifically incisive and vibrant playing by the 30-plus ensemble sets the tone for this exciting account.  Pulsing sforzandi, striking dynamic contrasts, well-defined and effectively juxtaposed instrumental colours, and unflagging musical impetus characterise the orchestral playing, which complements superb vocal performances from the cast and chorus.  Just as one can envisage Gluck approving of the musical drama in the overture’s Allegro movement and of the simple sincerity of the ensuing triple time slow movement, so one can imagine the fifteen-year Mozart smiling at Les Talens Lyriques’ brilliantly compelling playing.

The oratorio comprises two Parts, each lasting an hour.  There is some striking choral writing, but no ensembles, and some characterful and affecting arias.  There’s also a lot of secco recitative, but if that sounds potentially dull, Ozias’ opening onslaught, accusing the Bethulians of shameful cowardice, will disabuse.  The continuo texture is sparse (Emmanuel Jacques (cello), Stéphane Fuget (harpsichord and organ), Rousset (harpsichord)) but the flourishes, colours and accentuation are telling, and tempi are taut, driving forward.  The recorded sound is also bright and very ‘present’, drawing one into the drama.  Subsequently, when Sandrine Piau’s Amital and Amanda Forsythe’s Cabri discuss the people’s suffering and their feeble hopes for earthly salvation, the temperature remains high.  In the recitative accompagnata which accompanies Judith’s arrival, the instrumentalists make as much of the harmonic and motivic gestures as Teresa Iervolino does of the text; both make as really ‘feel’ Judith’s intense frustration and bewilderment at the faintheartedness of the Bethulians.

If the arias tend to follow the same dal segno form and there is some (forgivable) note-spinning, then Rousset and his musicians treat the score lovingly and reveal its worth.  Tenor Pablo Bemsch establishes Ozias’ forthrightness in his first aria and launches fearlessly and with vigour into the coloratura condemnation that he flings at his people, accusing them of ungodly fear in their wish to surrender to their Assyrian attackers.  His indignation is matched by the assertive strings and horns.

The role of Judith is Mozart’s only solo role for contralto.  Her first aria, ‘Del pari infeconda’, is a simile aria which compares the Israelites’ divided feelings with a river which flows, by turns, turbulently or unhurriedly.  This is the only movement in which we hear the two flutes, and Iervolino’s warm tone is a perfect match for the flowing instrumental lines; it wraps itself around one like a velvety blanket, as smooth as honey, joined by consoling horns and strings, and the vocal elaborations are beguiling rather than hectoring.

With resolve, Judith sets forth to fulfil her destiny.  ‘Parto Inerme’ (Unarmed I go forth) begins with a terrifically arresting first note, sustained through attack, retreat and swell, and culminating with a beautifully controlled trill, eloquent but determined.  The strings race impassionedly but are never anything but elegant.  In the central Adagio, Judith celebrates the faith that inspires her: Rousset wisely keeps the tempo flowing, allowing the oboes to supply a hint of plaintiveness, while the bass pulse remains purposeful and the vocal line full of conviction.  The coloratura of the dal segno reprise conveys Judith’s absolute determination and her excitement at serving her God.  Judith’s final aria, ‘Prigionier che fa ritorno’, after the slaying of Holofernes, is preceded by accompanied recitative involving the ensemble cast and the Chorus, the French chamber choir accentus, who respond to Judith’s return and her account of how the ‘fearsome head was cleft from his shoulders’ and ‘the headless trunk quivered on the bloody ground’.  The aria itself is surprisingly calm, as Judith puts the violent horrors behind her and welcomes the sun and ‘radiant light’ that dazzles, quickens and guides.  Iervolino’s extended lyricism is impressive, especially in the dal segno repeat in which the runs are fluid and the leaps effortlessly smooth.  Rousset shapes the strings’ assuaging inner-voice roving most tenderly and quickens the tempo effectively in the central B section, conveying the joyful, invigorating glow of faith.

As Amital, Sandrine Piau is forthright in her first aria, accusing Ozias of pitilessness in overlooking his people’s suffering.  The aria is symphonic style in manner, but the string playing is brisk and airy.  Piau has a sure appreciation of both idiomatic style and the inherent musical drama: her vehemence is elegant, the appoggiaturas and trills immaculate and tasteful.  In the central Andante episode, her earnest appeal is direct and touching, and its eloquence is enhanced, again, by Rousset’s forward-moving tempo.  Amital’s Part 2 simile aria (‘Quel nocchier che in gran procella’) likens the silence of Bethulia to that of the helmsman who seems indifferent to an approaching tempest.  The vivid string introduction and strong horn pronouncements are lively, and Piau uses the text effectively, her soprano animated but full, with a razor-sharp gleam.  There are some nifty exchanges of semiquavers between the violins above pulsing cellos, but the instruments make space for the coloratura, which feels a natural expression of Amital’s anxieties.  In the G minor B section, Piau conjures melancholy and pathos as her voice descends, a fitting musical image for the text’s picture of an invalid who does not complain but fears he is nearing his last hour.

One of the highlights of the score is Amital’s ‘Con troppa rea viltà’ in which she asks her merciful Lord for forgiveness for her doubts.  Two tempi, Andante and Adagio alternate, and the changing pace, string interjections and diverse harmonic explorations make this aria feel truly ‘operatic’.  Piau and Rousset achieve exquisite expressiveness as well as musico-dramatic expansiveness.

The trumpets make their sole appearance in Achior’s Part 1 aria, a military style number in which bass Nahuel Di Pierro sings with agility and precision, his tone dark but animated, as the racing strings rebuke and protest.  In Part 2, following Judith’s victorious return, Achior converts to Judaism, in a simple, earnest Andante, ‘Te solo adoro’, accompanied solely by the strings.  The repeated falling arpreggio motif and the descending scalic sequences create a mood of settled acceptance.  Di Pierro sings with lovely composure, descending Sarastrio-like with real gravitas and lovely colour and grain.

Amanda Forsythe takes the roles of both Cabri and Carmi who have one aria each.  Cabri’s Part 1 aria communicates, with easeful melodiousness, the fears that afflict the Bethulian people, weakening even the boldest heart.  Forsythe’s soprano is fresh and clear, and the line expressively ornamented – the cast are uniformly assured in this regard – and sensitively phrased.  The dips, swells and vocal leaps are clean and expressive of inner troubles, as the accents in the strings’ repeating quavers indicate the trembling of the people’s hearts.  In contrast, Carmi’s Part 2 aria is an agitated description of the fleeing Assyrians whom Carmi claims, somewhat ingenuously given Judith’s heroics, have been driven home by their fear rather than the sword.  In fact, this aria seems more agitated than it perhaps need be; I think that Forsythe transposes some gestures up an octave with the result that the aria is rather frenetically high-pitched and the lines angular.

The greater part of the secco recitative comes in the second Part of the oratorio which begins with an extended theological debate between Ozias and Achior.  Bemsch and Di Pierro communicate their respective convictions persuasively, and the disputation grows in intensity, the nuances of the doctrinal arguments reflected harmonically and texturally by the continuo.  The singers’ voices complement each other beautifully, so that there is musical concord even while there is theological discord.  And, there follows another of the score’s most lyrical outpourings: Ozias’ Part 2 aria, the longest of the oratorio, ‘Se Dio veder tu vuoi’, in which he explains to Achior that God is everywhere, without and within, his argument made more persuasive still by the warm horns and tender strings.  In the central section he implores, “confondimi, se puoi,/ dimmi, dov’eo non è” (confound me if you can, by telling me where he is not), as Rousset judiciously moves the tempo forward.  Mozart pushes the voice far above the stave for extended elaborate phrases and sustained notes, both of which Bemsch shapes beautifully; the tenor pushes himself even harder in the dal segno repeat, his technique seeming to confirm both the strength of Ozias’ faith and God’s undeniable presence.  One can only imagine that this aria is both daunting and deeply enjoyable to sing.  Certainly, Achior would be hard pushed to resist Ozias’ persuasions; indeed, he responds, “Confuso io son, sento sedurmi” (I am confused; I feel tempted).

Mozart uses the Chorus not only in the Finales which close each Part, but also in a terrific aria-prayer with Ozias, ‘Pietà, se irato se’, when the latter has won a five-day respite before his people’s wish to surrender must be realised.  Directed by Christophe Grapperon, accentus, sing with blended warmth and rhythmic strength, aid Ozias in his fluent beseeching.  The musical details of the colourful accompaniment are well-realised.  The homophonic Part 1 Finale is rather workaday, but Rousset manages to conjure breathless excitement and rich orchestral colours, and the voices swell with real conviction.  The Part 2 Finale is a hymn of praise sung by Judith and the Chorus, ‘Lodi al gran Dio che oppresse’.  The text is a fairly conventional summary of the suffering and successes which we have witnessed, led by the woman who ‘alone, without defence, filled [the enemy] with terror’.  Mozart’s structure is, however, inventive and engaging, and Rousset crafts a fine, uplifting conclusion to the narrative.

A handsome accompanying book contains a succinct article by Simon Keefe (in English, French and German) and a full libretto in four languages.  Whether Betulia Liberata was indeed composed by the adolescent Mozart, or Mysliveček lent a helping hand when tours, travels and other commissions prevented the young genius from fulfilling his obligations, will probably not be clarified unless Mysliveček’s lost score surfaces, but this recording by Rousset’s Les Talen Lyriques, accentus and the fine cast of soloists renders such questions redundant.  This is fine music, superbly performed.

Claire Seymour

Amital – Sandrine Piau, Cabri & Carmi – Amanda Forsythe, Guiditta – Teresa Iervolino, Ozìa – Pablo Bemsch, Achior – Nahuel Di Pierro; Conductor – Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, accentus (Director – Christophe Grapperon, Choir Master – Nicolaï Montagne).

Aparté 235 [66:00, 65:00]

[1] Sadie, Stanley. ‘Mozart’s Betulia liberata‘, The Musical Times, 190/1509 (November 1968): 1015-17.

[2] The manuscript of Mysliveček’s setting is lost.  Given that he first met the Mozarts in Bologna in March the preceding year, was – until a falling-out in 1778 over an unfulfilled commission – a very good friend and mentor to the young Wolfgang (he is the composer most frequently mentioned in the family’s correspondence and research has shown that Mozart was stylistically indebted to the elder Bohemian, from whose scores he at times borrowed), is it too far-fetched to surmise that the Betulia Liberata that we ascribe to the teenage prodigy was in fact by Mysliveček?