Aleksandr Serov: Judith (1863)

Opera in five acts. Running Time: 2 hours 27 minutes.

This is the last of my OdH birthday reviews as this would have been the 105th.

NOW FIRST SOME BACKGROUND FROM HISTORIAN PHIL:

Known as the Russian Meyerbeer (his maternal grandfather was a German-Jewish naturalist from Konigsburg), Serov is perhaps one of the most notorious and yet forgotten figures of Russian opera. Originally a civil servant, at the age of 31 he decided to live as a music critic and part time salon composer. The latter got him nowhere, but the former gave him the opportunity to be despised by both Westernizer and Nationalist forces in the Tsarist music scene by first producing a vicious tome of Ruslan and Ludmila (Glinka, and probably deserved) and then ticking off Anton Rubinstein (probably not such a good idea). In 1860, Serov attended a performance by an Italian theatre troupe in St. Petersburg, which inspired him to write Judith as an Italian-language opera, with a libretto by one Ivan Antonovich Giustiniani. Performance of such a work (in Italian, probably because it was too close to the text of the original 1857 play by Paolo Giacometti) proved to be illegal so the libretto was translated into Russian in increments.

Serov had a notoriously bizarre composition style, writing out music before the libretto was completed, and thus forcing his librettists to fit their words and dramatic situations into his pre-existing music. Composer Julian Grant, writing for The New Penguin Opera Guide stated that this method would have horrified Richard Wagner (Serov being a supposed Wagnerite, although from his music, there is not a trace of evidence for this beyond the existence of a mild leitmotif system as he seems indebted to Meyerbeer, Gounod, Glinka, and Verdi). The final product, however, proved to be an immense success, confounding his detractors as well as his friends with a score of far greater melodic creativity than would have been previously expected. Traces of Judith (and later Serov) can be found in Mussorgsky (who attended the premier of Judith with Serov and was inspired to write Salaambo as a result), Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov (there is an Indian song in act four which inspired the famous Song of India in Sadko), and Tchaikovsky (these three especially in the acts 3 and 4 ballet sections).

The success of Judith gave Serov the financial security to marry the composer Valentina Bergman (herself of Jewish descent although her family had converted to Lutheranism before her birth). He wrote two further operas, the even more Meyerbeerian Rogneda (based on the life of the wife of Vladimir the Great of Kiev and the conversion of Russia to Eastern Orthodox Christianity) and the more folksy (but nevertheless in five acts) The Power of Evil. These latter two operas have been recorded in excerpts, with Judith receiving a complete studio recording (the basis of this review) in 1991. The fourth act of Judith was produced in Paris in 1909 by Diaghilev, but otherwise no live performance of a Serov opera has occurred outside of Russia into the 21st century.

So what we have here is a perfect cosmopolitan work: a French-style grand opera based on an Italian play, sung in Russian, by a half-German Jewish composer based on a story from the biblical Apocrypha which both influenced and was influenced by Russian composers ranging from Glinka to Tchaikovsky. Perfect material for my Opera World no?

SETTING: Bethulia, 6th century B.C.E. The beautiful widow Judith (soprano) eventually infiltrates the camp of the Assyrian commander Holofernes (bass) and seduces him, beheading him while he sleeps and thus saving her people from death. The vocal casting is rather dark (with five bass soloists, and two each soprano, mezzo, and tenor). In spite of the large cast, the plot moves rather quickly and is rather straightforward, with each act consisting of just two or three plot elements.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Bethulia, town square. (31 minutes)

0, 10: Desnitsa Gospoda The overture ** seems like a random parade of themes (a sign that some of them will show up later), each abruptly stop-go with orchestral jolts separating the various parts (this can become tedious). The first is a very slow and sober theme, (although there is one frightening theme from the horns which might strike at one, it pops in frequently) it gives the strong impression that it was modelled off the overture to Faust (Gounod, that is). Suddenly, after about three minutes of this, GONG! HARP! and one lovely heavenly theme ascends (it will end the opera), but then…. We go on to a return to the first slow and sober theme and we come upon (of all things) a recitative for two town elders and the high priest (all basses, no less). This goes on for five minutes and is important because we learn from the elders (Ozias and Chamri) that Holoferenes is encamped close to the town, plans to attack in six days, blocked all of the roads in and out of the town, and the last water source the people have access to has just dried up (basically all the details in Judith 7). The high priest (Eliachem) hopes for a miracle in an at times furious three minute long arioso *. All of this is set to a background of music seemingly copied from the overture, just expanded upon.

12, 17: Nashi muki, nashi skrobi/Ya bozhd Ammonityan The townspeople (alternating male and female choruses) arrive expressing their fears about dying/being invaded by the Assyrian army parked in front of their gates **. A rather good number. Ozias and Chamri try to pacify everyone (ineffective). Achior, a tenor leader of the Ammonites who has converted to Judaism (this happens in Judith 15) is brought in by soldiers having just gotten beaten up by Holofernes for pleading to have the town spared. His long recitative is surprisingly Russian sounding ** (it could have been written by Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov). His second go might as well be Mozart.

26: Spasi rabov tvoikh The act ends with yet another very good chorus as the townspeople pray for deliverance **.

ACT 2: The home of Judith. (27 minutes)

6: Ya odenys v visson After a long prelude and recitative for Judith, her prayer ** for strength to do what she needs to do, to use her G-d given beauty to defeat Holofernes and save her people! This is followed by an accompanied recitative in which her mezzo-soprano maid Avra tries to dissuade her.

13: Gory, Debri i Polini zovulona Avra gets a rather striking number here ** before the two town elders show up to discuss this plan Judith has.

17, 24: Narodnu vy klatvu dali/Doloy pokrovy skorbi Judith goes over her plan with the elders to stealth herself (and Avra) into the Assyrian camp and seduce Holofernes, then kill him **. The elders approve in unison chorus and leave. The remainder of the act consists of a dialogue between Judith and Avra, the latter not thrilled about having to go with her mistress to the camp. In the last three minutes it turns into a full duet for the two women **. Although brief, it is the best music in the opera so far.

ACT 3: The Assyrian Camp. (28 minutes)

0: The March of Holofernes *** is obviously modelled off of the March of Chernomor.

4: Na reke, na Evfrate Odalisques sing of the Euphrates ** followed by a series of dance/song which could have come from a French or Italian opera (one resembles a Rossini overture finish).

11: Proch vse vy Holofernes comes on, ordering the Odalisques away he goes over his plan to take Bethulia in a monologue *. Asfaneses, his second, arrives with a report that a Jewess is asking entrance to the camp to meet Holofernes. This is granted (of course). Bagoas, the head of the herem, is not amused.

16, 19: Prishla k nam Evrejka!/Vnemli o bozhd velikiy Judith makes her big entrance as the Assyrian soldiers ogle her ***! Bagoas ends up having to compete with a trumpet voluntaire. Judith, for her part, is terrified and prays to G-d, but eventually vamps the entire situation with her sultry soprano arioso ** (Avra brings back a little bit of the severe foreboding from the overture). Holofernes is enchanted by Judith, and convinced by her rouse of promising to show him a secret passage into Bethulia.

27: Nyet v svete sily The Assyrians praise the glory of Babylon as the curtain falls **.

ACT 4 The Same, but with the tent of Holofernes. (41 minutes)

0, 4 The prelude ** sounds rather a lot like Goldmark (if only Goldmark had written it earlier!). It moves into a frantic dance of the Odalisques, and finally a dance of two Almabs *, a much more tranquil piece.

8: Polynya chashi vina! A mild (if furious) orgy chorus of Assyrian soldiers *.

10: Lyublyu tebya Bagoas sings a lush Hindu Song *** which is a welcomed pacifying patch amid the passionate, orgy-istic fury, and a much needed bit of tenorial breather.

15: Znoynoy my stepyu Holofernes follows this up with a military song ** Most of the men like it, except Asfaneses who reveals his dislike for Judith, upon which Holofernes stabs him to death. At that exact moment, Judith shows up with Avra, both horrified by the stabbing.

24: I ty so After a lot of recitative in which we learn that the attack on Bethulia is to occur the next day. Holofernes gets a rather good arioso patch * leadings to a minor ensemble as he drinks, everyone warns him not to, he gets so drunk that he passes out at the feet of Judith, who along with Avra makes ready for the former to be left alone with him so she can decapitate him.

26: Gdyezh ty Evrejka? The encounter between Judith and Holofernes, in which he becomes increasingly drunk and she eventually kills him, takes a full quarter of an hour, but it is rather good **. After a lot of fury he settles down and falls asleep, although Bagoas interrupts Judith before her first attempt at the final kill, congratulating her on becoming Queen the following day (Holofernes has promised to make her his queen, did I forget to leave that out?).

36: Votj ona! Judith contemplates what she is about to do ***. Avra comes in, wanting to get out of there, obviously. Judith prays to G-d, and does the deed! Themes from the overture dominate this section with all of the disjointed material ultimately representing the decapitation. They get out in less than a minute.

ACT 5: As in Act 1. (20 minutes)

0: The prelude ** is a rehash of the overture for two and a half minutes. It is followed by a chorus of starving Bethulians to much the same music. Achior comes on, and the town elders and the High Priest. Everyone is waiting for dawn when the Assyrians will take the city. At this point they have all given up and want to open the gates to the enemy without a struggle, except for the High Priest. Suddenly, Judith and Avra appear on the other side of the gate, the former showing the head of Holofernes to all. The two women enter the city and explain what has happened.

14: My pomidilij The opera ends with a five minute long choral jubilation scene punctuated by a glorious prayer to G-d from Judith taken from the glorious melody at the end of the overture ***.

COMMENTS:

Two complaints: why is Holofernes not a tenor? (I am being petty here) and the overall lack of smoothness in the score. The one great weakness of Serov was that he did not have a great well of melodic invention. Judith is the most adventurous and melodious of his scores and although he demonstrates the ability to write a very good tune and maintains the dramatic tension of the work for two and a half hours, the inspiration is limited, this isn’t Goldmark, but it isn’t Petrella either. The mechanical gears of the score are exposed continuously, and the instrumental flow is not smooth. This probably has more to do with Serov writing the music before he had access to the libretto, then trying to fit the text to his pre-existing score.

So what does the opera get right? Dramatically, it works. The plotting is simple and the storytelling straightforward. The characters (especially Judith and Avra) are able to gage the listener, and they are three dimensional. The score is clanky frequently, but there is enough musical effect (especially orchestration) to keep one engaged from start to finish. Even though there is filler (the ballets) these only add atmosphere of the work rather than cause it to drag or come off as for their own sake.

There are some Wagnerian influences, the overture includes a large amount of material which is reused in acts one, four, and five. So leitmotifs are part of the system, but these are so non-Wagnerian in structure (rather French or even Italian actually, perhaps an homage to the Italian source material). Nothing here is the Inno del Sole or act 2 of Aida of Russian opera, but it is consistently very, very good. And what is more, unlike Wagner, it is actually entertaining.

The one deserves a revival. This is now one of my favourite Russian-language operas.

An alpha.

WORK CONSULTED:

Grant, Julian. Judith, under Aleksandr Serov in The New Penguin Opera Guide. Penguin Books: 2001. pages 845-846.

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