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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
La Resurrezione - oratorio in two parts (HWV 47)
Nancy Argenta, María-Cristina Kiehr (soprano); Marijana Mijanovic (mezzo); Marcel Reijans (tenor); Klaus Mertens (bass)
Combattimento Consort Amsterdam/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. live, 26 April 2001, Muziekcentrum, Enschede, The Netherlands. DDD
CHALLENGE RECORDS CCDVD72159 [DVD: 1.56 + 0.46 plus 2 CDs: 64:02 + 50:48]
Experience Classicsonline


La Resurrezione
is one of the works Handel wrote during his stay in Italy, from 1706 to 1710. He had travelled to Italy because of his interest in Italian opera, but when he was in Rome he was denied the opportunity to write opera. As opera performances were forbidden by papal decree, lovers of the genre looked for alternatives. These were found on the one hand in the chamber cantata and on the other in the oratorio.

Oratorio had been one of the main genres of vocal music in Italy since the mid-17th century. It was Giacomo Carissimi who played a crucial role in its establishment, but stylistically it had undergone dramatic changes. Whereas the oratorios by Carissimi and his immediate followers were written on Latin – mostly biblical – texts. These were for performance in church and had a moral objective. Towards the end of the 17th century the oratorio developed into a vocal work which had more in common with contemporary opera than with the oratorio of Carissimi's time. The texts were in the vernacular, the subject was still based on the Bible or on the lives of Saints, but much more attention was paid to the portrayal of individual characters. In the end, its main objective was to entertain audiences and to give opera singers the opportunity to shine.

When La Resurrezione was first performed, on Easter Sunday 1708, all roles were assigned to opera singers, among them two castratos. Handel also made use of the soprano Margherita Durastanti, who sang the role of Mary Magdalene. Under pressure from the ecclesiastical authorities - who opposed to a woman singing in a piece of sacred music - she had to be replaced by further castrato for the next performance.

Handel's Roman patron, Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli became the subject of papal wrath. It was in his palace that La Resurrezione was performed, and it was through him that Handel was given the libretto of the oratorio, written by Carlo Sigismondo Capece. He was also responsible for making available to Handel an unusually large orchestra, led by none other than the great Arcangelo Corelli. It was an event Rome had never seen before and it seems that the performances were a great success.

In the present performance of La Resurrezione the orchestra is considerably smaller than the one Handel had at his disposal: seven violins (instead of 21), two violas (4), cello (5), double bass (5), two trumpets (2) and two oboes (4), plus bassoon, viola da gamba, flute and two recorders. Even if one takes into account that the modern instruments used by the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam produce a bigger sound than their baroque counterparts, this means that some of the impact of those first performances must be lacking here.

Even so I am generally pleased with the performance. Over the years Jan Willem de Vriend has shown a great skill for exploiting the dramatic aspects of the baroque repertoire, whether it be vocal or purely instrumental music. He has a great feeling for the rhetorical character and affects of the repertoire he performs. This is reflected in the phrasing and articulation, the differentiation between notes and the dynamic shading. This recording is no exception. The result is a very theatrical performance which brings the conflict between good and evil, represented by the angel and Lucifer respectively, and the emotions of the three human characters well to the fore.

As far as the soloists are concerned, I am mostly impressed by the contributions of María-Cristina Kiehr as Mary Magdalene (Maddalena), who is torn apart between hope and fear. Ms Kiehr explores this inner conflict well and brings much passion and warmth to her role. Nancy Argenta's voice is much cooler, and therefore is well-suited to the role of the angel (Angelo). She is very communicative, announcing her news of Jesus' resurrection to the audience and to her opponent, Lucifer. I would have preferred it had she done so with a little less vibrato, though. In loud passages her voice tends to get a bit shrill. Marijana Mijanovic gives a good account of the role of Cleophas (Cleofe), but I found it difficult to watch her perform because of her highly exaggerated facial expressions. Klaus Mertens sings beautifully as ever, but I find his performance a little too soft and friendly. A bit more rudeness and malice wouldn’t have gone amiss. In this respect David Thomas - in Christopher Hogwood's recording on Decca - is still unsurpassed. The least satisfying performance is that of St John (Giovanni). It is in any event a role in which drama plays little part, and Marcel Reijans, a seasoned opera singer, tries to make a bit too much of it. He also has a problem with the tessitura of his part, which could be the result of playing at modern concert pitch. If a low pitch had been used – as period instrument ensembles do – it would have been much less of a problem. At the same time a lower pitch would have lent Lucifer's role a bit more weight, and maybe Nancy Argenta would have been more comfortable on the highest notes.

This production consists of a DVD and two CDs. The latter contain the audio track of the DVD. I assume anyone buying this set will start by watching the DVD. As the performance was given in a modern concert hall without much atmosphere, there isn't a lot to see that is indispensable or really helps to understand or to enjoy the music. It could even be the other way round, as I indicated before: looking at the facial expressions of the singers isn't always pleasant. In comparison little attention is paid to the players, which is a shame. Not only do they do a marvellous job, but also watching them play can be very interesting. The DVD contains subtitles in English, German and Dutch. I have watched the English subtitles, which are clearly readable.

I can imagine most people turning to the CDs the next time they want to listen to this performance. In that case they will miss the translation: the booklet omits the lyrics or their translation.

The DVD has a documentary about the preparation of this project. Jan Willem de Vriend visits two important spots: Handel's birthplace, Halle, and the German city of Münster, where the so-called Santini collection is preserved. This contains a number of Handel's compositions, among them La Resurrezione. He is accompanied by an elderly lady, who was the main sponsor for this project and left her inheritance to the ensemble when she died in 2005. Her contributions are well spent and this documentary is a fitting tribute to an enthusiastic and knowledgeable Handelian.

To sum up: the recording by Christopher Hogwood mentioned above remains my favourite recording of La Resurrezione. It has no real weak spots and Hogwood's orchestra is of the size Handel had at his disposal in 1708. The present recording is first and foremost recommendable because of the dramatic reading of the orchestral score and - as far as the vocal soloists are concerned - the contributions of María-Cristina Kiehr.

Johan van Veen




 


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