About this Recording
8.573237 - MAYR, J.S.: Iacob a Labano fugiens [Oratorio] (Simon Mayr Choir and Ensemble, Hauk)
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Simon Mayr (1763–1845)
Jacob a Labano fugiens (Jacob’s Flight from Laban)

Oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra
Venice 1791

Libretto by Giuseppe Maria Foppa (1760–1845)
Performing edition by Franz Hauk

Laban – Siri Karoline Thornhill, Soprano
Leah – Andrea Lauren Brown, Soprano
Rachel – Gunhild Lang-Alsvik, Soprano
Jacob – Julie Comparini, Mezzo-soprano
Shepherd – Katharina Ruckgaber, Soprano

Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble
Concertmaster: Theona Gubba-Chkheidze

Directed from the harpsichord by Franz Hauk

 

Biblical Source (Genesis 25: 19–31)
Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, acquired the birthright of his twin brother Esau, who had been born first, in exchange for a meal (Genesis: 25, 27–34) and later Jacob also cheated Esau of the benefit of primogeniture (Genesis: 27, 1–40). Consequently their father had made Esau Jacob’s servant, but Jacob now became fearful of his brother’s wrath (Genesis: 27, 41–28, 22). Rebecca, who loved Jacob more than Esau, advised him to flee to her brother Laban. During his flight Jacob had a dream: God, who appeared to Jacob at the end of a ladder which reached up to heaven, prophesied that he would have many descendants and blessed him. On the journey to Laban Jacob fell in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel and served her for seven years, but at their wedding Laban deceived Jacob and married him instead to the older, uglier, daughter Leah. Jacob served Rachel for seven more years (Genesis: 29). When Jacob decided to return to his homeland he outwitted Laban when the herd of cattle was divided up (Genesis: 30, 25) and for that reason Laban’s sons accused him of theft. Jacob decided to flee with his people and the whole herd. Rachel stole Laban’s household idols while he was shearing his sheep (Genesis: 31, 1–21). Three days later Laban discovered that Jacob had fled and chased after him with his sons. After seven days he caught up with the fugitives and took Jacob to task. After an altercation they entered into an agreement and were reconciled (Genesis: 31, 22–32, 1).

The Action
The oratorio recounts an episode from the First Book of Moses in the Old Testament: Jacob’s flight from Laban (Genesis: 31). The four principal characters in the oratorio are taken from the Bible: Jacob, his two wives Rachel and Leah and their father Laban, Jacob’s uncle. The shepherd (Pastor) is a fictional character. In the history of the oratorio this episode in Jacob’s life spent with his uncle is rarely tackled; more frequently encountered is the story of the deception which Laban perpetrated at the wedding of Jacob to Rachel. Three such examples are to be found in libretti from Rome at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In the Venetian ospedali we find this subject only twice: in the Nuptiae Jacobis by Lorenzo Baini for the Ospedale dei Derelitti (1786) and De solemni nuptiae in domu Labani by Bonaventura Furianetto for the Ospedale della Pietà (1788). Most often encountered is the subject of the father’s blessing but very rarely the episode of Jacob’s ladder. The choice of less common topics is a hallmark of oratorios produced at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti. The same subject as that of Mayr’s oratorio is also covered in a Dialogo La fuga amorosa (Palermo 1729) and in the Bolognese oratorio Giacobbe in Galaad of 1782, both by unknown composers.

At the beginning of Mayr’s oratorio the tension between Laban and Jacob is portrayed, which leads to Jacob’s flight with Rachel and Leah at the end of the first part. The second part concentrates on the confrontation between the fugitives and Laban and his followers. The conflict is resolved in a surprising lieto fine. One is put in mind of similar resolutions in opera seria but this one is actually to be found in the Old Testament (Genesis: 31, 44ff). In the oratorio Laban allows himself to be moved by his daughters’ entreaties and the happy ending is brought about in a few lines of recitative from Laban: Ultra jam non resisto. Ad me tu veni / Jacob; ad sinum meum filiae venite; / Ultrices irae a me vos longe abite (I can resist no further. Come to me Jacob; / come to my bosom, daughters; / Vengeful anger be far away from me!) A sentimental motivation like this has no place in the Biblical account of the story. There the dispute is conducted as a legal matter which is settled at the end by means of a covenant.

The solution to the conflict as described in the libretto reflects the growing sentimentalization in oratorios of the time. This trend can also be seen in other works. The reason for Laban’s great anger is hardly mentioned at all, but is touched upon briefly just once in a recitative between Laban and Jacob, when Jacob had appropriated Laban’s goods (Injustus ego dum beneficiis meis te indutum vides?) (I unjust while you see yourself laden with what I have given you?) Other background details of the story, such as Jacob’s sham first marriage to Leah (Genesis: 29, 9–30) or Jacob’s guile in increasing the size of the flocks (Genesis: 30, 25–43) are not explained and are evidently taken for granted.

The person of Laban is very clearly characterized; he is suspicious, full of anger and rage and driven by a longing for revenge. Leah, too, has a straightforward character; she loves Jacob and obeys him unquestioningly. Her sister Rachel on the other hand is portrayed very differently. She is torn by the conflict between love for her father and love for her husband. She cannot decide whether to follow her husband and sister or whether she should stay behind with her father. Here the librettist Foppa departs from the Biblical source. The introduction of the conflict between Rachel and Jacob is altogether new. Her doubt and pangs of conscience have absolutely no place in the text of the Bible, quite the opposite; there it is Rachel who unscrupulously steals her father’s household idols (Genesis: 31, 19) and so provokes his anger.

The psychological interpretation of the female protagonist in oratorio has its roots in serious opera of the time where it is quite usual to expose the characters to the drama of the dichotomy between love and duty or between feeling and reason. Jacob too is shown in different emotional states. At the beginning he is convinced of the inevitability of fleeing, because it has been ordered by God. His utterances, Numen coeli fugam dat and Deus fugam mihi imperavit (God has commanded me to flee) correspond to the relevant verses in the Bible: Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you. (Genesis: 31, 3). He reacts angrily and is affronted by Rachel’s doubt but at the same time cannot help loving her. In the second part of the oratorio Jacob increasingly loses his self-belief in the face of his pursuer. He is unsettled and anxious and in his aria Date mihi extremum vale (Bid me a last farewell) [27] he even expresses thoughts of death. The person of Jacob approximates to the sensitive, conflicted hero, full of doubt, anxieties and weaknesses of the kind which had been characterized by the ospedali libretti at the end of the eighteenth century. The figure of the shepherd, who asks God to rescue the innocent fugitives, seems to hark back to a Biblical moment. There the Lord appears to Laban in a dream and warns him not to be angry with Jacob (Genesis: 31, 24).

The Musical Structure
This oratorio is divided into two parts and consists of thirteen numbers (excluding the Sinfonia and the recitatives), seven in the first half and six in the second. There are nine arias in all; with the exception of the shepherd, there are two arias for each of the main rôles, assigned equally to the two parts of the oratorio, so that each principal has one aria per part. The distinct characteristics displayed by each character are mirrored in the choice of the corresponding forms of aria. Leah’s uncomplicated character is expressed in a bucolic aria, Ah prata adite (O go to the meadows) [4], which at once corresponds to the pastoral ambience. The simple, one-movement aria is in ¾ time (Andante grazioso) and in A major, a tonality typically used by Mayr for such pieces. Demisemiquaver motifs in the violins imitate the murmuring of silver streams and bird-song, which are mentioned in the text in a quatrain. And for Leah’s second aria, Placida spiret aura (Kindly blow the breeze) [29], in G major at the end of the second part Mayr reverts to the antiquated form of the dal segno aria. Although wind instruments are used, they are not so important here. In the recitative which precedes this aria Leah begs her father to stop persecuting her, otherwise she would rather choose to die together with Jacob. Thereafter the aria evokes the happiness of future days, which would follow after Laban’s show of compassion. So in the first quatrain the subject is the gentle breezes and shining stars which would come after all the misery. The music portrays this gentle, peaceful feeling and only at the words turbidae procellae (storms and tempests) is its character disturbed by semiquaver passages in the violins and by big leaps in the vocal part. Leah’s arias occupy a peripheral position, but they do establish the oratorio’s pastoral mood. Their secondary significance is manifested in the fact that they are preceded only by secco recitatives.

Rachel’s much more complex character, on the other hand, finds its counterpart in the use of more modern forms of the aria, both of which are preceded by accompanied recitatives. Her first aria, Per loca incerta obscura in F major, is in two parts with a following section marked ‘slow—fast’. Her second aria, Pater amans, pater chare (Loving father, dear father) [22], also in F major, is in the form of a rondo, a particular kind of two-part aria which in the field of opera seria evolved for the female protagonist and one which Mayr used above all in the early operas of the 1790s. In her first solo Rachel intends to cut herself off from her father, yet the conflict between her love for him and love for her husband prevails. This makes its presence felt in a large-scale accompanied recitative, for strings alone. A restless, upward-thrusting motif, which is repeated at different harmonic pitches, at first accompanies her determination to wrest the image of her father from her heart. But suddenly she pauses for a moment and the voice of nature appeals to her love for her father. At this point the music becomes soft, the tempo changes to adagio and the recitative ends in the minor. There follows the aria Per loca incerta obscura (Through uncertain and dark places) [12] in which Rachel is torn between sponsus (husband) and pater (father). In the fourteen-bar orchestral introduction short, pithy motifs are linked. Mayr constructs from these the vocal accompaniment from the first part. In the course of this the wind instruments play an important rôle. The voice begins with declamatory note repetitions which gradually develop into a melody. In the second quatrain of the text Rachel poses the rhetorical question: where could there be a more desperate bride and daughter than she? The second passage of this quick allegro section ends with virtuoso coloratura music on the word laceratam (torn), which highlights the key word of the aria.

The conflict between love for her father and love for her husband is also the subject of Rachel’s second aria, Pater amans, pater chare (Loving father, dear father) [22], which comes immediately before the argument with Laban. Jacob and his retinue are on the run, aiming for a cave in which to hide from Laban. Just as in the first part of the oratorio it is Rachel who—overcome by her ambivalent feelings—pauses, hesitates, and can go no further. She is terrified by dark premonitions of death: horrenda imago terret cor meum (a hideous fearful image terrifies my heart). In her hallucinations (accompanied recitative) she sees her father in a rage and Jacob wounded. Amid tears she begs Laban to put an end to his ranting and finally offers herself up for sacrifice. Then follows a big three-verse aria. In the first verse Rachel appeals to her father’s loving heart. In the second verse she entrusts the wretchedness of her fate to the winds and in the third she assures Jacob of her loyalty. The form of the two-part aria corresponds to that which had evolved in opera and which was reserved for female protagonists. Rondos in opera appear at dramatic climaxes, either before a decision is made or before the death of the hero or heroine. The aria here fulfils a similar function. Rachel is in despair at her impossible situation and is ready to die. It is now that she first acknowledges her love for Jacob. From a musical point of view the aria exhibits all the characteristics of a rondo-aria. The first two verses are set in a slow recapitulating section with a strongly contrasting middle section (a-b-a’). At the beginning of the allegro a preliminary transitional section precedes the rondo theme (v. 9–10) with a halt at a fermata; and there is a double iteration of the rondo theme (v. 11–12) at the closing aphoristic utterance, Sponse mi semper fidele / erit crede cor in me (My husband, ever true / will be my heart within me), this with a typically gavotte-like opening. Chromatic phrases have a simple accompaniment (notable here, however, are the block-like interjections from the woodwind) and there are textual back-references to the first verses with new motifs, as well as a vocally virtuosic finale with coloratura singing.

Mayr also chooses modern forms for Jacob, which allow him to express his typically contrasting emotions. So his first aria, Vade, a me fuge infida (Go, fly from me, faithless woman!) [15]—his reaction to Rachel’s hesitant demeanour before their flight—is in three sections. His second aria Date mihi extremum vale (Bid me a last farewell) [27] follows the two-movement model. Before his first aria Jacob presses for an early start. His people reach a copse. It is night, but suddenly, from afar, they hear their pursuers. Rachel does not want to go any further. Jacob feels that he has been deceived by her; he accuses her of a breach of trust and of false protestations of love (illustrated by a solo oboe) and he even challenges her to hand him over to her father.

Jacob’s outburst escalates into premonitions of death. This scene is in a large-scale accompanied recitative but now—as an intensification of Rachel’s recitative—features the woodwind instruments. In the three sections of the aria the contrasting emotions of the verses—outrage, feelings of love and resolve—are conveyed. The aria (Vade a me fuge infida) begins in the indignant, rhythmically striking maestoso in E flat major, and the whole of the first section is dominated by dotted quavers (v. 1–2). In the second verse (v. 3–6) Jacob is overwhelmed by his feelings for Rachel. These feelings are expressed in a Larghetto in ¾ time which anticipates the vocal line in a heartfelt melody played by the solo oboe. The solo oboe is heard again later and answers Jacob’s futile pleading with short phrases; his emotions will bother him no further. In the concluding third section (v. 7–10) Jacob regains his self-assurance and persuades his friends to follow him. But the image of an unfaithful wife will not leave him. This is underlined by increased use of the woodwind instruments. These are an autonomous group set in opposition to the strings and the voice. They illustrate in a block-like way the image of the unfaithful Rachel or, through march-like interjections, Jacob’s resoluteness.

Jacob’s second aria comes at a dramatically critical moment, straight after the confrontation with Laban. Here Jacob loses his God-inspired certainty, bows to his fate and takes leave of his beloved wives, dogged by a presentiment of death. The recitative which precedes the aria comes immediately after the big scene with Leah and Laban. After long stretches in which only the strings appear, Mayr sets the solo recitative. A broadly-arching cantilena on the cor anglais, accompanied only by horns and bassoon, intensifies Jacob’s parting lament. This scoring also dominates the aria, especially in the slow first section, the cantabile, which throughout has an air of gentle sadness. The allegro section begins in a manner close to recitative, with a declamation interspersed with pauses, Heu quae poena! quale fatum! (Alas, what pain! What fate!), etc. It is not until verses 7 and 8, Ah cor sentio laceratum (Ah, I feel my heart torn), that Jacob gives full vent to the expression of his agonies in a melody formed of syncopations and chains of quavers. This mood is further heightened in a 30-bar stretta marked più allegro. In the two transitional parts of the allegro references are made, not only texturally, but also in the music, back to the cantabile and to the phrases on the cor anglais.

Laban’s first aria, Nil a vindicta extrema (Nothing will keep me from extreme revenge) [6], in C major—a classic revenge aria—is essentially in one movement, but Laban’s colossal temper is reflected in what comes next via an eight-bar maestoso introduction as well as in a più allegro twenty-bar coda. This musical structure seems to be based on the text; Jacob strenuously denies the accusation that he has illegally appropriated his uncle’s property but this only provokes Laban’s anger. His aria contrasts greatly with Leah’s pastoral aria. It has no instrumental ritornello and after only one bar, which anticipates the rhythmical pattern of the vocal part, Laban’s rage breaks out. His singing is strongly declamatory, the melody rhythmically tight and volatile. Typical revenge motifs can be heard in the orchestra: dotted notes, angry scales in demisemiquavers and in the main section of the aria the violins, mostly in semiquavers. In the closing stretto the vocal line almost takes on frenzied features, when, at the words fremendo conculcabo (In anger I shall trample down), it climbs upwards in chains of quavers, along with the violins. Laban’s second aria, Vos arma sumite (Take your weapons) [24], in B flat major is also in one section but it involves the chorus and, in that respect, proves to be modern. This aria also represents the furious pursuer, driven by inexorable rage. The chorus—Laban’s retinue—has a dramatic rôle here. It responds enthusiastically, in homophonic declamation, to Laban’s summons to battle. In doing so it does not repeat the text of the soloist but uses its own words.

The shepherd is a minor character, so he has only a single aria—Gemendo suspiro (Groaning I sigh) [19]. It has a simple structure (a b a’), without woodwind, and the voice is virtually colla parte with the first violins. A sighing motif permeates the whole aria. Like Leah’s first aria it is in A major and in ¾ time.

Jacob contains several ensembles and larger scenes in which the chorus also takes part. The first part of the oratorio presents two trios and a many-sectioned finale with choral accompaniment. The second part is more traditional and has no separate ensembles although it does contain a large and dramatic accompanied scene for Jacob, Leah and Laban. The oratorio concludes with a chorus containing solo passages sung by the principals. In a manner unusual for an oratorio Simon Mayr opens the work with a scene which begins with a duet, broadens out into a trio and closes accompanied by the chorus. As an introduction this leads to a characteristic revelation of the situation. Jacob, determined to flee from his uncle Laban, tries to reassure the doubting Rachel. Smelling a rat, Laban comes up to them and watches the pair suspiciously. The closing chorus summarizes the ominous situation in its last two verses: Ab nimbus minitando / Heu surgit sine spe (Ah, a black cloud, threatening, / alas, arises without hope). The increase in the tempo of the individual sections corresponds to the growing excitement and tension of the situation: Duet—Larghetto / Trio—Con moto / Chorus—Più allegro.

The first scene begins with a gentle Larghetto in E flat major. It provides a harmonic contrast with the introductory single-movement Sinfonia in C major which goes straight into the Larghetto. Linked short orchestral motifs, beginning with the woodwind, introduce the dialogue between Jacob and Rachel. It is followed by a twelve-bar section a due. With Laban’s entrance the mood in the orchestra changes. Offbeat quavers in the violins underline Laban’s agitation and suspicion. After 27 bars the turmoil intensifies (sotto voce), the woodwind are gradually added to the movement until the final fast tempo is reached and the strings change into playing tremolando. To this a stretto in the chorus comments on the situation: Incerti sunt, confusi (They are uncertain, confused).

In the second trio, Qualis horrida funesta (What a terrible deadly shadow) [9], the fugitives react as a group to Laban’s outburst of rage and his threats. They feel themselves to be surrounded by terrible ominous shadows and have forebodings of deadly thunderbolts: fulmen sentio sibilare (I hear lightning hiss). The two-part trio in B flat begins with an Andante con moto. The orchestral movement creates an excited whole in which the fearful visions are depicted: syncopated sforzati in the first violins, woodwind chords, offbeat accents in the horns reinforcing the semiquaver groups of the middle strings, and dynamic contrasts. After four bars the three voices introduce a homophonic movement punctuated by pauses—but at the same time numb with terror. After fifteen bars the agitation dissipates and with it the torpor. Each character comments on the situation then they all come together again in a homophonic declamation. The second, quick, allegro section depicts the hissing of the impending blaze and the protagonists’ mortal fear. The four-part finale forms the climax of the first part—this too is unusual and modern in an oratorio of this time. Following the argument between Rachel and Jacob events now concentrate on their flight from Laban. The finale begins with a D minor chorus interspersed with alternating interjections from the soloists. Shadowy strings underline their fear with unsettling piano syncopations. This fear is expressed by the chorus declaiming, reinforced by pauses. A brief crescendo and the sudden deployment of the woodwind instruments herald Laban’s approach from afar. Then comes an instrumental piece of battle music in D major. A solemn solo from Jacob, an invocation to God, follows. He is accompanied only by brass sotto voce, in the ‘religious’ style. In the fourth and last section choral singing alternates with Jacob’s solemn confession of faith in God, still accompanied only by the brass. In the light of their leader’s great trust in God, Jacob’s followers have cast off their fear and envisage only victory in their impending defeat of Laban.

In the second part of the oratorio the confrontation between Laban and Jacob is played out in a large-scale scene, which Jacob leaves as the loser. The clash between the adversaries is designed as a huge recitative accompagnato, sometimes using the whole orchestra. It comprises—including Jacob’s scene before the aria—155 bars. Within this complex scene contrasting emotions are displayed and are underscored with succinct musical motifs. The scene is played out in a cave (an antrum, according to the libretto). Jacob has lost his self-assurance (Laban’s combative aria with chorus is past). The scene is introduced by gentle violin motifs in G minor in the violins. Jacob turns to his sisters for help. In bar 22 the orchestra breaks in abruptly with a sforzato chord. The violins accompany with ominous appoggiaturas. A change into the Allegro ensues over an abrupt modulation of a second from D to E flat. By these musical and dramatic means Mayr symbolizes the breakdown of external events: the pursuers make themselves known. Jacob acts as though petrified and remains in a state of indecision, resto … quid ago? vadam? (Do I stay?… What do I do?… Shall I go?) … But it is too late. Laban has caught up with him and orders his men to surround Jacob. This action is depicted by ascending and descending quaver motifs in the violins along with insistent chords in the woodwind. Now Jacob’s strength deserts him: fatum tu vicisti … vires desunt in me (Fate you have conquered. / My strength fails me.). Feeble falling string unison passages make clear his humiliation. But as Laban wants to see him in chains Jacob rises up once more and prepares for flight: Deus fugam mihi imperavit (God has commanded me to flee). When Laban refuses to back down Jacob refers to him as a brutal beast (string tremolandi). Yet imploring and sighing, as heard in the violin motifs, are to no avail: audi suspiria misera morientis (hear the sighs of a wretched dying woman). Finally Jacob invokes heaven, deadly thunderbolts (demisemiquaver runs in the strings) rain down on Laban yet he is unperturbed. Jacob has to admit defeat and takes leave of his retinue. The deployment of cor anglais with bassoon and horns marks the beginning of the recitative, as already mentioned.

The oratorio concludes in a traditional manner with a closing chorus expressing joy at the happy ending. The principals Jacob, Leah and Rachel begin with solo verses, before the chorus comments on the state of affairs in a homophonic manner: Post nimbos, et ruinas / caelum serenum donat (After clouds and destruction there follows a calm sky). The work comes to an end in a blaze of C major.


Anja Morgenstern
English translation by David Stevens


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