Azione sacre was a particularly genre of opera meant for the period of Lent when the theatres theoretically were closed but the impresarios still had singers under contracts and seats to fill. A Biblical subject would be chosen, preferably one with a good moral message and set to music that was often so similar to that heard in opera that there was really very little difference. The azione sacre often included more chorus work as most of those uplifting religious subjects involved crowds praying, imploring or if they were horrid Babylonians cavorting so a choir was needed. And the work was seen in a simplified staging but often with some scenery and costumes. It was a crafty work-round the religious restrictions of the season.
Pietro Metastasio, the great Italian librettist, considered Betulia liberta (Bethulia Liberated) to be his finest azione sacre and it is easy to see why. His take on the apocryphal story of the widow Judith and her victory over the Assyrians is unusual for the subject - it was normal to accentuate the erotic end of things with the beautiful but pious widow seducing the foreign commander but in this case Holofernes never appears. Metastasio centres his story around the inhabitants of the town of Bethulia and their faith under fire during the siege. The seduction and beheading is only described by Guiditta (Judith) in a passage of recitative which is perhaps one of the most powerful descriptions of a murder I have ever heard. And the second act includes a dialogue between Ozia, the Prince of Bethulia and his captive the Assyrian Achior that is a masterpiece of Christian rhetoric and was often cited in theological discussions. It is a solid, concentrated piece of theatre with a clear message of the Power of God through faith - just the message wanted for the Lenten period.
It is thought that Metastasio's work was set to music on at least 40 occasions and for this year's Festival Muti decided to perform two version with music composed at different periods by two composers at very different periods in their artistic lives.
Italo Grassi's model for a scene from Act I of Betulia Liberata - an interesting trio of semi-circular walls revolved around each other. It was an effective use of abstract forms to convey locale and, with Marco Filibeck's lighting, mood.
In 1771 during a tour through Italy a 15-year old Wolfgang Mozart was commissioned to set the libretto by a rich patron in Padua and it was to be presented there during Lent in 1772. For some reason it was never performed then nor during Mozart's lifetime. It is obviously the work of a young composer - Mozart did not have the confidence, or his patron's leave, at that point to so much as change or omit a word of the libretto - but the music that accompanies Guiditta's retelling of her act is intensely dramatic and matches the power of Metastasio's words. And as performed by Alisa Kolosova became, rightly, the centre piece of the work. Theatrically it was stunning as words, music and performance.
It is telling that as a conductor Muti seemed to give a much importance to the recitative throughout the performance as he did to the big arias and choral moments. Speranza Scappucci's provided a pointed continuo that kept the story moving without that often mindless plunking and plucking when everyone wants to just get through it and on to the next big aria.
Though big arias there are: as can be expected some are very formula - a young man writing what is expected of him; while others show the undeniable talent that was forming. All follow the AABA format of the period i.e. Section A is sung, then repeated, Section B (often a contrasting text or emotion) is sung, then Section A repeated with variations. However often the arias are bracketed by the chorus - this is particularly true of the music for Guiditta and Ozia to heighten the emotional impact. It is a well crafted work by any composer, exceptional when you think it was written by a teenager.
With the exception of Maria Grazia Schiavo the young singers in the cast were all new to me. Schiavo appeared in last year's opera at Whitsun and this year after a slightly unsteady start - I may be wrong but I believe she was pregnant unless it was a costume decision to heighten the effect of her pleas on behalf of the besieged people of Bethulia - she delivered her arias with an honest intensity and some lovely but subtle ornamentation. It should be noted that though Muti allows his singers to ornament the da capo section of most arias it is always within certain boundaries of taste. Michael Spyres (left with Alisa Kolosova) sang the strenuous tenor lines of Ozia, the Prince of Betulia, with a fine lyric sense of style and his handling of the theological duologue with Nahuel Di Pierro's fine bass Achior was a model of recitative singing. Di Pierro brought power to his final aria as the foreign Prince recognizes and accepts the power of the God of the Jews.
Amital (Maria Grazia Schiavo) rejoices as Achior (Nahuel Di Pierro) praises Jehovah, the one god as Ozia (Spyres) and Giuditta (Kolosova) look on.
The production by Italian director Marco Gandini was a simple clear telling of the story within Italo Grassi austre setting of three revolving semi circular walls. The chorus - the remarkable Philharmonia Chor Wien - were treated as individuals and the direction of the soloists pointed up the tensions in a group under siege, the people, their leaders and the brave woman who saves them. Gabriella Pescucci's costumes were subdued and vaguely oriental in style with only Giuditta bringing any colour onto the scene - a deep marine blue gown as she adorned herself for her mission and for her triumph a red dress almost the colour of the blood she had shed to liberate her community.
Giuditta (Alisa Kolosova) describes her beheading of the drunken Olfernes in a powerful accompanied recitative that is the pivotal point in both Metastasio's libretto and Mozart's score.
If the costuming kept Giuditta as the focus of the piece so did Kolosova's performance. The young Russian mezzo has only recently appeared on the international scene and appears to have taken a path through various Young Singers projects to her current position with the Atelier Lyrique at the Paris Opera. Muti may have been taking a chance on casting her in the title rule of the centre piece of the Festival but it was a chance that paid off. As I mentioned her handling of the "azione" recitative was riveting and her arias showed a rich voice which promises much for the future.
Muti's Mozart may be a bit old-fashioned but it suits this particular work well. I am always astounded by how he is able to communicate his incredible musicality to his singers and the orchestra. His Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini is, of course, the "house band" for the festival and play beautifully under his command. The key to anything that has been presented here since he took over four years ago has been the thorough preparation that goes into what is being presented.
The entire team behind Betulia Liberata - production team, conductor, soloists, chorus and orchestra - take their final curtain call at the end of the first performance.
This may have been "minor" Mozart but as always with Muti and his troupe it was a "major" performance. It was going to be interesting to see how the older and more famous - at the time - Niccolo Jommelli handled the same subject in 1743.
All photos by Silvia Lelli for the Salzburg Festival who graciously allows free use of them.
06 giugno - San Norberto di Premontre