Early work of Handel exquisitely resurrected
During his sojourn in Italy in his early 20s, Handel learned two important things in rapid succession. He steeped himself in the conventions and practices of Italian opera — something he had studied only at second hand in his native Germany — and about 20 minutes after that he realized that he could deploy those conventions with more imagination and skill than anyone then alive.
Both of these strains show up in Handel’s early oratorio “La Resurrezione” (“The Resurrection”), which got a striking and often exquisitely beautiful performance on Saturday, May 6, by the American Bach Soloists. Written in 1708 for a private performance in Rome, this elaborate work finds the young genius probing the limits of the operatic style, discovering what works and what doesn’t.
On the surface, at least, “La Resurrezione” plays like a fairly straightforward assemblage of Italianate numbers. It’s a two-hour-andthen-some sequence of recita-
tives and arias, with the occasional duet or instrumental interlude thrown in. You can already hear the prowess with which Handel spins out long, shapely melodies and intricate passagework in the service of dramatic expression.
But at the same time, there’s something deeply and wonderfully weird about this piece, which uses operatic technique to rehearse one of the most luminous and essential tales of the Christian faith.
Jesus himself never appears in the libretto. Instead, we get two planes of dramatic action — a celestial struggle between an angel and Lucifer, and the human doings, before and after the great event of the title, of Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas and John the Evangelist.
Where these can be cast in terms of traditional operatic dramaturgy, Handel does so. Lucifer, most notably, is indistinguishable from any other stage villain, and the angel’s vocal pyrotechnics would not be out of place in the mouth of, say, a heroic Crusader or potentate.
But John and the two Marys have spiritual matters on their mind, which Handel and his librettist (Carlo Sigismondo Capece) simply finesse. Listen beneath the words, and the two Marys are plainly singing a love duet; the emotions all three of them give vent to are expressed using the compositional gestures of secular opera.
Overall, “La Resurrezione” is an amalgam of conventional tropes — there’s an aria comparing emotions to a tempest-tossed ship, and another one using the flute to conjure up the song of the turtle-dove — and fascinating expansions of the genre. Some of those pay off, like the evocative chromic gestures of Mary Magdalene’s aria “Per me già di morire”; others are unproductive paths that he learned to avoid. (Another aria for Mary Magdalene is a morass of harmonic and rhythmic oddities.)
Saturday’s performance at the First Presbyterian Church, led by Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas, made a robust and eloquent case for the entire endeavor. The small instrumental ensemble beautifully captured both the sumptuousness and intimacy of Handel’s writing, and the cast of five singers did full justice to their assignments.
Soprano Nola Richardson was a sweet-toned, forthright Mary Magdalene, ably partnered by mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle as Mary Cleophas. Baritone Jesse Blumberg’s Lucifer sounded both suave and demonic, with a liquid upper register and wondrously cavernous low notes, and tenor Kyle Stegall’s John was a tender presence.
But the evening’s star was soprano Mary Wilson, whose performance as the angel was at once lyrical and triumphant, a dazzling array of legato melodies and ornate coloratura. Hers was the singing that lingered longest in a listener’s memory.
Soprano Nola Richardson