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Gentileschi Artemisia - Esther before Ahasuerus - c. 16281635

Why Esther?

The 1682 murder of the 43-year old Alessandro Stradella cut short the turbulent life of one of the greatest composers of his generation. Most probably ordered by a jealous husband or paramour of one of his lovers, his life ended as lurid as it was prolific, leaving a legacy illuminated by genius and saturated by scandal.

Stradella’s Rome alternately strained and flourished in the iron grip of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic church’s reactionary movement against nascent Protestantism. The movement needed sights and sounds to sell its message, that of one true church, against which all other religions were not only frauds but expressways to hell. While the Inquisition executed thousands and Jewish Ghettos went up across the Italian peninsula, the Catholic Church’s patronage of composers and artists resulted in works of chiaroscuro contrast and revolutionary vision, powerful illustrations of Catholic dogma, all the better to grab the attention of the viewer or listener, and pull them to the side of righteousness before any Protestant propaganda (the propaganda is always from the other side) could work its magic.

Into this simmering Roman cauldron enters our dissolute composer, finding fertile ground for his talents among the aristocratic Roman families that churned out the cardinals and popes who patronized geniuses for generations. In 1673 Stradella writes an oratorio called Ester Liberatrice del Popolo Ebreo (Esther, Liberator of the Jewish People). The libretto by Leilo Orsini sets the one story from the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, as it is referred to by Jews) in which God is never mentioned. It is a story in which banquets, sexual revelry, court intrigue, gossip, plots and strategy wind their way to the triumph of a clever Jewish queen over a murderous court minister.

The Book of Esther is also the first mention of genocide in the Bible and in Jewish history.


Manuscript of Ester Liberatrice del Popolo Ebreo

Set in Persia during the reign of Ahasuerus, known in Italian as Assuero, and in Greek as Xerxes (yes, the one of the many operas), the libretto opens with a chorus of Jewish people lamenting their ill treatment at the hands of the King’s evil minister, Aman (Haman). What has Aman done? He has set down a decree (a Pur) that the entire Jewish population be annihilated. Why? Because Esther’s cousin Mordechai (Mardocheo in Italian, Marduk in Assyrian), a Jewish court functionary, has refused to bow to him.

At this point in the libretto, but not in the bible, an allegorical figure enters, Speranza Celeste, who encourages the Jewish people to trust in God, hope and faith. Aman enters after Speranza’s jaunty aria. Extolling the power of his own wrath against those who disrespect him, he sings of his hatred of Mardocheo, who urges his cousin Ester (Ishtar in Assyrian, Esther in English) to approach the king, reveal Haman’s decree of genocide, and beg on her knees for help. Ester knows this is risky, as one never approaches the king without being approached first, and she reminds Mardocheo of the sad fate of Vashti, the previous queen who was deposed for impudence.

Mardocheo is unswayed by Ester’s anxiety, which overtakes her as she contemplates the monumental task of saving her people from genocide at the risk of her own life.

The Jews continue to lament and Haman mocks them. Speranza Celeste visits again and disputes with Aman the certainty of his power in the face of divine will. Act II finds Ester at the feet of her king, who still holds her in high esteem. He invites her to ask of him anything she wants. Here is her opportunity to tell him of Haman’s genocidal plot and demand his downfall, but she is circumspect. She asks instead for a private banquet with Aman present.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn - Ahasuerus Haman and Esther - Google Art Project

Rembrandt van Rijn - Ahasuerus, Haman and Esther

At the banquet, Ester prostrates herself before her husband and reveals both evil Haman’s plot against the Jews and that she is one herself, which he did not previously know. Assuero the King turns to Aman in a rage and Aman begs for mercy. He is condemned to death. Thus Aman’s decree (the Pur) is reversed, and he is the one to die on the gallows prepared for Mardocheo while the Jewish people live. Here the oratorio ends, but the bible story continues. Haman is executed along with his ten sons and Esther inherits his wealth. Jews gain the protection of the state after the genocide is averted because of Esther’s fortitude, intelligence, and canny action. The holiday of Purim, which commemorates this reversal of the decree or Pur and the triumph of reason over brute force, celebrates the downfall of Haman with gift giving and general revelry.

Esther Denouncing Haman by Ernest Normand

Esther Denouncing Haman – Ernest Normand

The Book of Esther is part history (Assuerus/Xerxes did indeed exist) and part novel. But there is no heavenly figure swooping out of the sky to assure the oppressed population. Events simply follow each other and document the triumph of female intelligence over male rage and pomposity, while no mention of God is ever made. Much ink has been spilled over the centuries, asking why it ever became part of the bible in the first place, while more recent scholarship suggests the radical possibility that the Book of Esther may have actually been written by a woman.

Stradella’s finely etched characterizations give us a specificity of emotion that is worthy of the greatest art of the Counter-Reformation period, rendering him a musical Caravaggio. His music brims with exquisite but mysterious compositional choices, and the identity of his murderer remains as much a question as why a story about the liberation of the Jewish people was set to music at the time of proliferating ghettos.

– Jessica Gould


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