Early work of Han­del exquisitely res­ur­rected

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATEBOOK - By Joshua Kos­man

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.

Amer­i­can Bach Soloists

So­prano Nola Richard­son

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