by Jane Tylus
Professor Tylus spoke at the oratorio reading of November 18, 2017. Her contextual talk was in place of the sermon often found between oratorio halves. She summarized her talk for the Journal.
Judith is one of the most fascinating figures of the Old Testament — or, more precisely, of the Old Testament’s deuterocanonical or apocryphal books. A solitary widow who rises up against the godless general Holofernes, her story has long furnished a compelling subject for artistic representation, such as the disturbing painting by Artemisia Gentileschi depicting Judith and her handmaiden in the very act of decapitating their enemy. A century after Gentileschi committed her gruesome image to canvas, Domenico Freschi composed his oratorio Giuditta, in 1705. It came in the midst of a sudden, even surprising burst of plays, poems, operas, and oratorios on the Hebrew dynamo, including an oratorio by Alessandro Scarlatti first performed in Rome in 1693.1 Why there was such attentiveness to Judith at the dawn of the 18th century is beyond the scope of these remarks, but perhaps one of the last words Freschi’s Judith utters at the end of the first act, right before the intermission, can furnish a clue: “Guerra” — “War!” It is, notably, a word she never uses in the Bible.
And, in fact, Catholic Europe was at war in the late 17th century, with both its Protestant enemies to the north, and its Muslim enemies to the east.2 Ten years before Freschi’s Giuditta was performed, the Ottomans had secured Athens from the Venetians and were using the Parthenon to store their gunpowder; ten years after Giuditta, the Ottoman-Venetian and Ottoman-Austrian Wars would be raging. Indeed, the Judith that we see in Freschi’s — and Scarlatti’s — oratorios is a militant Judith. She is comfortable arguing openly for war in a way that differs strikingly from her more restrained appearance in the Bible. There, the most that she says to Bethulia’s leaders is an enigmatic line that God has chosen her to stop the Assyrians, after which she prays and departs for Holofernes’s camp. Freschi’s Judith will also beguile, seduce, and murder Holofernes, and return to her city in triumph. But in the oratorio, Holofernes is actually the easier challenge. He immediately falls in love with the fetching Hebrew widow, who calls him her “tesoro” or treasure in a lyrical love duet that would be delightful were we unaware of the duplicity of the lady whom Holofernes will call his greatest triumph. The tougher challenge, as Freschi stages it, is Ozia, king of Bethulia, far less confident in God’s support for the Hebrew people than is Judith herself — and by extension, it turns out, far less “manly.”
As a result, Judith seems almost to have more in common with Holofernes, whose first word in the oratorio — “guerrieri,” warriors — will be echoed by Judith’s “guerra.” Moreover, given that Holofernes was sung by the counter-tenor, the similar upper registers of the soprano and castrato voices argue sonically for the characters’ affinities as people of action. Ozia is Judith’s real opposite, and perhaps even the greater danger: he and his city are paralyzed before the great fury of Holofernes and his Assyrian army. The oratorio opens with Judith chastising him for not being sufficiently penitent before God, and so much of the score is devoted to her encounters with Ozia that the brief exchange with Holofernes feels almost perfunctory. In their first duet, Ozia sings, “Until I placate Heaven/ I shall weep,” while Judith says, “Until I placate Heaven/ I shall pray.” Even though Ozia speaks forcefully in his initial exchange with the Assyrian messenger Vagao, he quickly offers to capitulate once the siege has begun: “Let him come, let Holofernes come.” Judith is quick to disagree — “Ozia, che pensi?” — “whatever are you thinking?” — and she goes off to her room to “speak with the great lord of the world”: not the human, fallible Ozia but the Hebrews’ God, who will fill her with the “force that toughens even cowards.”
Throughout his career Freschi was fascinated by enterprising if difficult women. Helen of Troy, Circe, Berenice, and “Tullia superba” (the proud Tullia, who ran over the body of her father, the last king of Rome, with her chariot) dominate his operas. His preference for his leading ladies is reflected in the fact that in Helena rapita da Paride, for example, the soprano’s arias take up some three-fourths of the work.3 Maestro di cappella in Vicenza — the northern Italian town that boasted the country’s first classical stage, the Teatro Olimpico — Freschi was also active in nearby Venice. Some of his works featured such an extensive cast that they were performed at a villa in Piazzola, outside Padova; Berenice vendicata has a scene where some 300 people occupy the stage at once, including 100 Amazons and 50 Moors on horseback. Freschi had a taste for the exotic as well as for the luxurious, and he accumulated a sizeable number of artworks. Perhaps not surprisingly, his output of “musica sacra” — the very genre for which Vicenza was known as an important center — looms far behind that of his secular works. Giuditta and Il Miracolo del Mago are his only-known oratorios, although he may be the composer of an unattributed “Saint Anthony of Padova.” And the recent discovery of the score for Giuditta in Vienna suggests that there may be more out there to find.
Freschi’s Judith is not all bluster. Behind her actions and prayer lies hope, “speme,” a word we hear throughout Freschi’s piece, and which Judith once pointedly refers to as “la speme mia” — my hope — when she is dressing down Ozia for his lack of faith in God. She has only one brief moment of hesitation when, after resolving in her room that she will “go to the infamous tents of Holofernes,” she adds, “Forse, chi sa — perhaps, who knows? If by my right hand, Bethulia should triumph and Ozia reign.” Yet it is this very flicker of doubt that allows us to see hope doing its work, as she will transform herself from the strident widow chastising Ozia for his lack of manliness into “la bella Ebrea”: the beautiful Hebrew — and a beautiful Hebrew who in turn will become what Freschi will call “that peerless Amazon.”
Such hope may have guided Freschi’s and Catholic Europe’s own faith as well in those years of the Counter-Reformation and Ottoman attacks, years when a pamphleteer would write “Betulia assediata, penitente, vittoriosa”: “Bethulia under siege, repentant, victorious,” a three-part drama that could only be achieved via a Crusade to seize the Holy Land from the Turks. The middle term, penitence, is key to Freschi as well. One had to repent of one’s sins, and perhaps of one’s cowardice and lack of manliness, before being able to discern where victory lay, even if in the unlikely hands of a woman whom Freschi enables us to trust from the very moment she walks onto the stage. Thus does Giuditta demonstrate even more clearly than its Biblical counterpart of two millennia earlier that desperate times require desperate solutions.
Jane Tylus is Professor of Italian Studies and Comparative Literature at NYU. A specialist in late-medieval and early-modern European literature, her most recent books are Siena, City of Secrets (Chicago, 2015) and the coedited Early Modern Cultures of Translation (with Karen Newman; Philadelphia, 2015). She is the General Editor of I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance.
1 To which Freschi’s Giuditta contains some notable similarities, such as the five-character cast and a major role for the Hebrew king, Ozia. See the helpful program notes by Xavier Carrère, for the CD of Alessandro Scarlatti, La Giuditta, directed by Martin Gester; available at http://www.eclassical.com/shop/17115/art44/4792644-4d2407-3760135100040_01.pdf. For the larger context of oratorio and literary production about Judith in the period, see Paolo Bernardini, “Judith in Italian Literature: A Comprehensive Bibliography,” in Episodes in Early Modern and Modern Christian-Jewish Relations: Diasporas, Dogmas, Differences (Newcastle-on-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2016), 139–57, and the essays in The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies across the Disciplines, ed. Keven R. Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
2 As Jude Zilik suggested in his essay for the occasion of the Academy of Sacred Drama’s performances in November 2017.
3 Of 86 musical pieces, 69 are for soprano, 3 are “duetti per due soprani,” 9 are solos for bass, and 5 are for tenor: producing what Alberto Zanotelli calls a kind of “monotony” but evidently one praised by the public. For this and other details in this paragraph about Freschi’s life and compositions, see Zanotelli, Domenico Freschi, musicista vicentino del Seicento: catalogo tematico (Venice: Fondazione Levi, 2001) and the brief but helpful pages dedicated to Freschi by Francsco Bussi, “L’opera veneziana dalla morte di Monteverdi,” in Storia dell’opera, ed. Francesco Cavalli and Antonio Sartori, 6 vols. (Turin: UTET 1977), 1:121–82.
Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 2 (2018) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0