Lost Baroque Jewish Oratorio Found

Rembrandt’s wife modeled Esther

A month before Purim, the rattlingly joyful holiday celebrating a Jewish queen’s triumph over evil shegetz Haman, the ensemble MIRYAM, founded three years ago to bring Jewish early music to New England audiences, will debut the rarely heard Baroque oratorio Esther by Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti. Rediscovered two decades ago and performed only a handful of times since (never on the East Coast), the Hebrew-language oratorio, written for the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1774, is unique in a number of ways. An Austrian Christian of Italian descent composed it to a commission from a community of Portuguese Jews, employing a Venetian rabbi’s translation of Handel’s Esther libretto into Hebrew. It is the only complete oratorio surviving from the Baroque  with an entirely Hebrew text.

Aside from possessing historical and cultural significance, the oratorio also contains gorgeous music, with striking arias, beautiful choruses, and rich orchestration. MIRYAM’s roster, based mostly in Boston, draws also from Connecticut and NY. The ensemble will present the Boston and East Coast premiere on Saturday, March 2nd at 7:00 PM at Emmanuel Church in Boston and Sunday, March 3rd at 4:00 PM at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley; harpsichordist and conductor Dylan Sauerwald will direct an ensemble of five soloists, nine choristers, and 14 instrumentalists, while soprano Alicia DePaolo, director and co-founder of MIRYAM, will sing the role of Esther. Visit miryamensemble.org to reserve tickets or call 781-832-0968; further details are below and at article end.

Lidarti’s oratorio retells the biblical story of Queen Esther, who rescued the Jews of Persia from King Ahasveros (Xerxes) and his scheming advisor Haman. Scored for orchestra, soloists, and chamber choir and sung entirely in Hebrew, Lidarti’s captivating writing brings Esther’s story alive. Lovers of Baroque music may recognize Handel’s 1718 libretto, translated by Rabbi Jacob Raphael ben Simhah Judah Saraval. Soaring arias, powerful choruses, and vividly dramatic scenes draw us into an ancient story that has captivated generations. Lidarti’s takes speaks both to its audience, exiles of the Inquisition struggling to re-form their identities and communities, and to audiences today, wrestling with matters of oppression, assimilation and what it means to survive and thrive in a pluralistic society. This exciting premiere leads up to the Jewish holiday celebrating Esther’s life and triumph. Purim traditionally is observed with costumes, sweet treats, and Purimspiel, colorful pageants in which children and adults to play out the thrilling story of disguise, court intrigue, and a heroine’s courage in risking her life to save the lives of thousands. In a local synagogue might be found party hats and noisemakers, while in our performance audiences can celebrate with a full orchestra and chorus.

For anyone familiar with early music, oratorio, or Jewish musical traditions, these performances promise to be a revelation: Esther is the only complete oratorio written entirely in Hebrew that has survived from the Baroque era, and it has never been performed in Boston, New York, or anywhere in the eastern US. It was rediscovered by musicologist Israel Adler in 1999 in the Ets Haim library of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue, and has only been performed a handful of times worldwide.

BMInt wanted detail and spoke with Depaolo:

FLE: What else did the Dutch congregation commission? Did that congregation allow worship music beyond cantillation of the psalms?

AD: Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jewish community had a rich musical life and commissioned a number of works for liturgical purposes in the synagogue. Surviving chamberworks by Lidarti include two cantatas for solo voice and violins as well as liturgical and psalm settings for 3-and 4-part chorus. Records indicate that these works were performed during the celebrations of Shabbat Nachamu (“Sabbath of Consolation”, following Tisha b’Av), Simchat Torah, (the holiday in which the cycle of Torah readings is concluded and a new cycle begun), and Shabbat B’reishit (the Shabbat following Simchat Torah). The community also commissioned many works by prominent composer Abraham Caceres, although only a few have survived. The surviving manuscripts by Lidarti and Caceres, along with several works by anonymous composers, are preserved in the Portuguese Synagogue Ets Haim library, the oldest continuously operating Jewish library in the world.

Will any of the singers need cantorial techniques?

The singers in our production will not need to use cantorial techniques. There is no cantillation notated in the manuscript of this oratorio.

What will the music sound like?

The whole oratorio was conceived in a time of transition between the late Baroque and early Classical periods; it includes da capo arias with brilliant ornamentation, but the overall musical style sounds closer to early Mozart and Haydn. The vocal writing has a soaring, galant quality, especially for Esther and Mordecai’s early arias, and the orchestration is a lush combination of strings, woodwinds, and horns. The three-part chamber chorus provides Greek-chorus style commentary.

Was Esther performed in the synagogue originally?

We have not found records of where Esther was first performed; however, there are other existing records from the late 18th century indicating performance of large-scale works in the synagogue. Musicologist Israel Adler references a grand work for choir and orchestra celebrating the inauguration of the Portuguese synagogue in 1675.

What characteristics of Lidarti’s Esther are specific to the Dutch Sephardic community? A BMInt-organized discussion of just what constitutes Sepahrdic music is HERE.

Lidarti was an Austrian Christian composer of Italian descent and his musical style is not representative of the entire Sephardic Jewish community. However, Amsterdam’s Sephardic community commissioned Esther from Lidarti because they valued his musical language. A great deal of variance exists even within Sephardic communities; the style of cantillation used in the synagogue would vary depending on geographical location, and a variety of other factors.

MIRYAM presents the work on Saturday March 2nd at 7pm at Emmanuel Church in Boston and Sunday March 3rd at 4pm at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. Dylan Sauerwald will direct and Alicia DePaolo will sing the role of Esther, with tenor Elijah Hopkin as Persian King Ahasveros and tenor Corey Hart as Esther’s uncle and advisor, Mordecai. Baritone Jacob Cooper will be the wicked vizier Haman, plotting the downfall of the Persian Jews, and soprano Elise Groves delivers the role of an Israelite lady, a member of Esther’s retinue at court.

Both performances are made possible by the kind assistance of the Israel Music Institute, and Sunday’s performance is supported by a grant from the Wellesley Cultural Council, a local affiliate of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. MIRYAM is a fiscally sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a national 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to empowering artists, arts organizations, and cultural stakeholders of all kinds; the East Coast premiere of Lidarti’s Esther is largely funded by individual donors through Fractured Atlas. Tax-deductible contributions can be made at miryamensemble.org.

Alicia DePaolo singes title role

Alicia DePaolo and Ari Nieh founded MIRYAM in 2016 to bring Jewish early music to audience in New England. Their ensemble members are all acclaimed performers and scholars of Renaissance and Baroque music who also have passion for connecting with audiences. Many of their programs bring well-loved composers like Monteverdi and Schütz into Jewish spaces and other houses of faith, celebrating the Jewish roots in their compositions and opening a fruitful inter-religious dialogue. Other programs highlight Jewish composers, such as Salamone Rossi, or feature music from a specific Jewish community, like Amsterdam’s Portuguese synagogue. In every space they enter they set the intention of celebrating the beauty and richness of intersecting identities and musical languages.

Alicia DePaolo, soprano, has received critical acclaim for her “perfect combination of clarity and warmth.” She holds a master’s degree in Early Music Vocal Performance from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and a bachelor’s degree from Smith College. Alicia has worked with such distinguished directors as Nigel North, William Jon Gray, Ivars Taurins, Stanley Ritchie, Drew Minter, and Jeffrey Thomas, appearing as a soloist in the United States, Canada, and Italy in a range of works including Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis, Charpentier’s Missa Assumpta est Maria, Bach’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Faure’s Requiem, and Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri. Opera and oratorio roles include “Fatime” in Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, “Castitas” in Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum, “Israelite Man” in Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, “La Nymphe des Tuileries” in Lully’s Alceste, and “Mercury” in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

Dylan Sauerwald is a distinctive historical keyboardist and conductor. At the keyboard, he has been praised for his “fleet fingers” and “sophisticated playing” (Capriccio) and as a conductor his productions have been called “heart-wrenching and self-reflecting” (OperaWire). Sauerwald has performed in venues from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to Taipei’s National Recital Hall, and his playing is featured in the BBC historical drama Poldark. As a recording artist, Sauerwald can be heard on the New Focus, Coro, and Urtext labels, as soloist and continuo player on harpsichord, organ, fortepiano, and lautenwerck performing works from the 16th century to the 21st. A champion of early opera, he has led productions of rarely performed works acclaimed as “refined and flexible” (Boston Globe), “fearless” (Voce di Meche) and “a remarkable musical experience” (OperaWire). He is in demand as a guest conductor, appearing with Sunshine City Opera, the Cantanti Project, Dorian Baroque, Ensemble Musica Humana, and others. Sauerwald directs Polyphemus, an early-music collective and concert series in lower Manhattan, and is director of music at the New Dorp Moravian Church.

Jacob Cooper, baritone, hails from Colorado, and has performed in and around Boston for almost 20 years. He enjoys regular participation and occasional solos with local ensembles such as Handel and Haydn, Boston Baroque, Odyssey Opera, lends his talents to recordings and other projects with Vox Futura, and sings weekly services with Church of the Advent. In July, Jacob sang the role of Aeneas in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Blue Hill Bach.

A dedicated and versatile soloist and chamber musician, Oregon native Elise Groves has a special focus on music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  Upcoming projects include “City of Women” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in February, a concert of Renaissance polyphony with the Tallis Scholars in Berlin in March, and weekly services with the Choir of the Church of the Advent in Beacon Hill.  This season Elise has also performed with the Handel and Haydn Society, Sonnambula, Vox Vocal Ensemble, and the Bach Project.

Emanuel de Witte: Detail from Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam (courtesy Amsterdam Rijksmuseum)

Chamber choir

Soprano I: Agnes Coakley-Cox, MaryRuth Lown, Alyssa Mae Doggett
Soprano II: Hailey Fuqua, Katie Hoyer, Caroline Rossiter Olsen
Bass: Henry Clapp, Ian Pomerantz, Ethan Sagin

Instrumentalists

Sauerwald directs a chamber orchestra of strings, flutes, oboes, horns, and continuo.
Flutes: Andrea LeBlanc, Na’ama Lion
Oboes: Sarah Huebsch, Joyce Alper
Horns: Liam Hanna, Marina Krickler
Violins: Emily Dahl Irons, Jane Starkman, Sylvia Schwartz, Joy Grimes, Emily Hale
Viola: Emily Rideout
Cello: Sarah Ellison
Bass: Ben Rechel

Harpsichord / Conductor: Dylan Sauerwald

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