A Mozart oratorio about women empowerment

Judith beheading Holofernes – a painting by Franz von Stuck.

A Jewish woman is at the center of today’s work: Judith, who gave her name to a chapter of the Old Testament, the Book of Judith. The parable recounts the siege of the city of Bethulia by the Assyrian commander Holofernes and its deliverance by Judith. Bethulia never existed under this name, it may stand for Jerusalem, it certainly stands for a beleaguered city, its inhabitants terrorized and wavering in its faith in God. Judith however follows a heavenly vision, summons her courage and passes through the enemy lines. She enters Holofernes’ tent and by promising information on the Jews, she gains the commander’s trust. Seducing the enemy is the ultimate proof of her faith. One night Judith kills Holofernes and ends the ordeal of the city. A magnificent tale about courage, cunning, faith and women empowerment.

Judith’s heroic act has been set to music by quite a few composers, namely Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His oratorio “La Betulia Liberata” (K. 118) immediately struck me by its distinct Mozartian signature, and I have grown very, very fond of it. In March 1771 an arts lover from Padua, Marchese Don Giuseppe Ximenes d’Aragona, sent Mozart a commission for an oratory. The composer, aged 15 at the time, was touring Italy with his father Leopold and his reputation preceded him wherever he went. So Mozart set out to write “La Betulia Liberata” right after his return to Salzburg and this within a few days. Whether the Paduan nobleman was impressed is unknown. He may well have never received the score and it most likely was never performed. It simply disappeared from Mozart’s horizon.

Beating the Italians

The oratorio shows how developed Mozart’s musical abilities were already at this early age. If you care to listen to the recording by the Coro e Orchestra dell’Oficina Musicum, you will recognize the typical elements that characterize the composer’s stage works:  lyrical orchestral parts and wonderfully emotional bel canto* passages for the singers. Mozart followed the Italian opera tradition and he did it entirely on purpose. He picked a libretto written by the Italian master Metastasio, a libretto that two composers, much venerated in Padua, had just used to produce their own version of “La Betulia Liberata”, Joseph Myslivecek and Giovanni Callegari. Mozart intended to beat Myslivecek and  Callegari in their own yard.

The score also shows that Mozart was aware of the compositional restrictions  he had to respect: easier parts for the choirs, more demanding parts for the orchestra. Good choirs were scarce in Italy by that time while there were quite a few excellent castrati to take on the female roles. Now isn’t that a fine irony: A castrati performing the part of en empowered, bold woman! I am very glad that meanwhile we have so many excellent female singers performing male and female parts and that we no longer need men deprived of their sexuality.

Emotions running high

The overture, albeit short, is a wonderful, stirring piece of music,  very Mozartian, and leading to the equally beautiful aria of Ozia, the prince of Bethulia, reprimanding his people for their “an excess of godless fear”. Cabri, a fearful Bethulian, replies in an emotional lamenting:  “[…] what strength does not weaken”? Amital, a noble woman from Bethulia, then reprimands Ozia in one of my favourite parts, sung in the very high soprano register: “You have no heart, if amid these laments of misery you do not stir […]”.

Towards the end of part I, Achior sings another moving aria raising the emotions to a new high level. Achior is a Ammonite king who tried to convince Holofernes to lift the siege with the argument that the Jews had a powerful God that would protect Bethulia. He is being ridiculized, expelled from the ranks of the Assyrians and made prisoner by the Bethulians. He describes Holofernes as being “terrible of aspect, barbarous of manner, either he counts himself among the god […]” This sets the stage for Judith: “I go forth unarmed and unafraid; I go alone but secure […] have Him in my spirit, and hear Him reply that I shall be victorious.”

The power of faith

In part II in a longer recitativo, Judith explains that Holofernes is dead and how she killed him. This leads to the next highlight, Achior’s aria: “Judith, Ozia, people, friends: I yield, I am vanquished. Everything takes on a new aspect for me. I know not who has transformed me from what I was: I no longer find the old Achior in me. I am filled, entirely filled, with your God.” Oh miracle! Judith’s victory has convinced Achior about the rightness of the Jewish faith.

At the same time Amita repents from the injustice she has done to Ozia at the beginning of the oratorio (“With too culpable baseness my soul insulted Thee when it despaired of Thy succour”) and here I must praise both the composer and the singer. Mozart captures Amita’s confession by reducing the music to the essence and by changing tempi* – total disarray over her own lack of trust. The soprano Angela Bucci again perfectly renders Amita’s personal drama, a true joy to listen to, it made me really shiver. In the euphoric finale, the choir praises God for its omnipotence while Judith attributes her victory over Holofernes to her faith alone – a gentle reminder that this is still an oratorio and not an opera seria*!

Not only do I deeply enjoy the oratorio, it also had a stimulating effect. The emotional side of the music made me reflect the current debate about women discrimination, the #MeToo movement and the many fields where gender equality is missing. If one replaces the faith as the source of Judith’s power by access to education at all levels, family planning and equal salaries, the oratorio fits well into the current debate: Women can achieve anything that man can achieve, provided they are given a chance. It requires women willing to take up the challenge and men like Ozia, high-minded and mentally free to step back and let them try.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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