Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione was written
whilst he was staying in Rome in 1708. It was written for one
of his major patrons, Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli, for
whom Handel also wrote a number of cantatas. The oratorio was
performed as part of a sequence of Lenten oratorio performances
organised by Ruspoli. Though oratorio in name, it is in effect
a rather static sacred opera and was written to get round the
ban on opera then in place in Rome.
It was performed in lavish static settings in Prince Ruspoli's
Palazzo. Ruspoli engaged a huge orchestra (21 violins, 5 double-basses)
of which the 23 year old Handel took full advantage. In fact
we only know of the extra musicians that Rusopoli paid for,
his house musicians probably played as well giving an even
bigger orchestra; though on this new recording from Emmanuelle
Haim and Le Concert d’Astrée, the orchestra is
slightly smaller, with 10 violins and just 1 double-bass.
The plot, such as it is, interleaves Christ's Harrowing of
Hell with the activities on earth between his Crucifixion and
Resurrection. Christ himself never appears; neither does his
mother, though both are referred to in the libretto - by the
court poet of ex-Queen Christina of Sweden, then living in
Rome. The opera opens with a spectacular aria for the Angel
(Camilla Tilling), with a descending phrase almost describing
his/her descent into Hell. From then on Christ's Harrowing
of Hell and his triumph over Death are described in a series
of duologues between the Angel and Lucifer (Luca Pisaroni).
Back on earth, Mary Magdalene (Kate Royal) and Mary Cleophas
(Sonia Prina) both lament Christ's loss and have various degrees
of trust in his return. Magdalene was written for Margherita
Durastantini, one of Handel's long time supporters, but she
could only sing one performance; the Pope objected and she
was replaced by a castrato - no women allowed. Magdalene gets
most of the show's hit numbers and is probably the most fully
rounded character. Kate Royal is sexily attractive in the role
though I was rather troubled by her manner of squeezing the
notes. Used in a limited fashion this mannerism can provide
a gorgeous, sexy quality, but here she seemed to over do things.
Sonia Prina is wonderfully dark voiced as Mary Cleophas, though
in her fast numbers her tight vibrato tends to occlude her
passage-work somewhat. She sings with great brilliance and
she copes well with some of Haim’s brisk tempi. Prina
has a lovely dark voice, which contrasts well with Royal’s
higher instrument. But Prina’s vibrato can sometimes
rather cloud her passagework.
The two women are comforted by St. John (Toby Spence) whose great confidence
in Christ's forthcoming resurrection is indicated by his series of trusting,
pastoral arias - no trouble and questing here. The problem is that nothing actually
happens, the three simply lament and recount. We don't even get St. John's encounter
with the Virgin, he simply reports it. The language is a little over-heated at
times which does not help the drama.
Toby Spence sings St. John’s music with a beautifully intimate tone, which
entirely suits that pastoral nature of this music. Handel’s orchestration
is ravishing and here ravishingly realised by Haim and her forces. Again, its
not their fault that I want more edge to the part.
Camilla Tilling’s Angel is technically quite brilliant in the faster passages
and provides some rather lovely line in the quieter passages. My main problem
with her is that her voice is a little too vibrato laden for my taste and her
coloratura lacks the pin-point accuracy that I like in this repertoire. But it
might be argued that my tastes are based on the more English sound of singers
like Emma Kirkby who are not necessarily idiomatic in this repertoire.
As the villain, Lucifer, Luca Pisaroni sings with superb aplomb, using his rather
attractively grainy bass voice to good effect, though his runs do sound rather
laboured. And it’s not his fault that he never actually gets to do anything
in the oratorio - his part is all reportage.
In fact, most of the singers on this disc come from the younger cadre of singers
who are comfortable in period performance as well as later repertoire. This is
admirable in terms of vocal agility and sympathy to different performing styles.
But this has drawbacks as well; on this disc I found that the women in particular
brought to their roles a continuous use of significant vibrato that I found intrusive
at times. Tilling’s way with the passage-work in her role seems to differ
stylistically little from the way she would tackle early 19th century
Italian opera. Of course, this might just be me being prejudiced. But Haim has
shown a preference in the past for working with singers from more traditional
backgrounds and her style seems to be to integrate more modern vocal styles with
period performance. The results are entirely creditable, admirable and not a
little charming. But they are not always what I would want in a performance of
One of the greatest charms of La Resurrezione is Handel’s ever-vivid
orchestration. He was clearly showing off and provided with a patron who could
afford it, took every advantage of a variety of instruments. St. John’s
arias are frequently simple continuo arias and these brilliantly set off the
more exotic ones for the other characters. Mary Magdalene has an accompagnato
written for two recorders and viola da gamba. Mary Cleophas’s ‘Naufragando
va per l’onde’ has dizzying runs for oboes and strings along with
a beautiful plaintive middle section written using the same scoring - Handel
showing off his versatility again.
Handel never performed the work again. Instead it became a source book for other
works, bits of it cropping not only in his Italian period opera Agrippina but
also in his London operas (Rinaldo, Il Pastor Fido), the Water
Music as well as the oratorios.
The piece has been recorded a few times, but there are not as many versions in
the catalogue as you might expect given the music’s delightful brilliance.
Mark Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre recorded it in 1996 with Annick Massis
and Jennifer Smith; Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music with
Emma Kirkby and Patrizia Kwella.
The discs were recorded live, but there is admirably little evidence of that
in audience coughing - or reaction. It sounds live though, in that we get a wonderful
dramatic immediacy from the singers. The booklet includes a fine article by David
Vickers giving full historical background and texts in Latin and English (plus
French and German); by today’s standards the CD production values are lavish.
Haim and her band brilliantly bring off Handel’s orchestrations and the
instrumental contributions are some of the great attractions of this disc. Time
and again my ear was drawn away from the voices to the lovely instrumental contributions.
Many people will be entirely happy with this disc and it is brilliantly produced.
It is just the vocal style which still nags at me and I will always want to have
Emma Kirkby standing by to give me an entirely different view of this repertoire.