Wednesday, May 23, 2012: Tempted by The Serpent

Opus Osm

Ensemble Inégal performs Zelenka's oratorio at Emauzy Abbey May 19

Tempted by the Serpent: Ensemble Inégal Turns In a Tempting Il Serpente di Bronzo

After the concert, we bought the CD.

That does not, in fact, happen very often to us.

But Ensemble Inégal’s performance of Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Il Serpente di Bronzo warranted the expenditure.

The performance took place May 19 at Emauzy Abbey as part of the Prague Spring Festival. Under the direction of conductor Adam Viktora, Ensemble Inégal re-created the dramatic Biblical narrative of the Israelites making their way through the desert to the Promised Land. But the action is centered around serpents, only one of which is actually made of bronze.

Initially God sends a plague of poisonous snakes (serpents) to torment the Israelites who are complaining about the harsh nature of their journey through the desert. The second time He speaks, it is to direct Moses how to save his people from the snakes in response to his humble prayers for salvation. Moses is told to erect a snake-shaped cast-copper figure so that when the worthy behold the sign, they shall find health and life. Hence the name of the opus: The Serpent of Bronze.

The work differs conceptually from the customary norms of this musical form in that it has no overture, but double choruses at the opening and conclusion. In the conclusion, the chorus sings about God’s mercifulness to sinners, saving them first from the sword and then from monsters (the snakes He sent) through the medium of a bronze serpent that is apparently much more acceptable than golden calves.

Opus Osm

Ensemble Inégal's theorbo

Italian oratorios such as this one were performed from about 1724 until 1825 in the Catholic court church in Dresden on Good Friday evenings and Easter Sunday afternoons. This followed the period after Saxon Prince Elector Frederick Augustus I converted to Catholicism in 1697 in an effort to get elected to the Polish throne.

Zelenka composed Il Serpente di Bronzo in 1730, but perhaps due to his Czech heritage, he consistently played second fiddle to German musicians and was never formally rewarded with the position of bandmaster. His opuses were archived and it was not until the 1830s that his slow comeback began. The comeback was so slow that he was known only to historians, until his work was again played in 1863.

Today, Zelenka may be compared to Bach, Handel, or Vivaldi as one of the most notable composers of the first half of the 18th century. Ensemble Inégal did justice to his legacy not only in the enthusiasm they brought to the performance, but also the re-creation itself, complete with period wooden flutes, harpsichord, and a full-sized theorbo.

Those present at the Abbey were delighted by the authentic performance, followed by two encores. Indeed, there is no need to look for the historical adder connected with this opus, but simply to enjoy the music.

And that is why we bought their CD. — oo

– Hana and Frank Trollman

Photo Credits: Frank Trollman

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