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Re-visioning a Biblical Story through Libretto and Music: Debora e Jaele by Ildebrando Pizzetti

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image of Biblical Interpretation

Both music and librettos are a form of midrash (creative re-telling), because they retell all or part of a story by creating a particular mood or feeling musically. The re-telling is in both the altered text and in the language of music. Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) wrote both the libretto and music of Debora e Jaele from 1917-1921. In this libretto, motivations are completely reversed. Characters perceived in the biblical account as "good" and "bad" seem to be switched. Our previous presumptions about the story and its characters are challenged: the belief that Sisera is evil and powerful, and has no positive qualities; that Deborah and Jael never met; and that Jael and Sisera had had no prior encounters. The libretto and the music succeed in depicting three-dimensional characters with conflicting motives and feelings. The addition of dimensions to the characters amplifies the moral ambiguities found in the original narrative. Sisera becomes a dominant and central character of this opera. Pizzetti is offering a counter-reading, in which the "villain" becomes a kind of hero and the listener can understand why Jael succumbs to his charms. A recurrent theme in this work is the testing of and by God. The viewpoints of Jael and Deborah depict what Pizzetti described as "human" justice (Jael) and "divine" justice (Deborah). An encounter with this opera will alter forever our reading of this biblical story.

Affiliations: 1: Rome, Italy


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