Handel’s La Resurrezione – Le Concert d’Astrée/Haïm

La Resurrezione – An oratorio in two parts to a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece

Angel – Camilla Tilling
St Mary Magdalene – Kate Royal
St Mary Cleophas – Sonia Prina
St John the Evangelist – Toby Spence
Lucifer – Lorenzo Regazzo

Le Concert d’Astrée
Emmanuelle Haïm

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 31 March, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Emmanuelle Haïm. Photograph: Simon FowlerTen years ago “La Resurrezione” was performed in the Barbican Hall by The English Concert under Trevor Pinnock and reviewed as a novelty. Since then the investigation of Handel’s vocal works has proceeded apace and the score is more familiar, with a performance at the 2008 London Handel Festival (and not deterred by the perceived need to have to wait for this year’s Handel celebrations). In fact the work enjoyed its own anniversary in 2008. It is a product of Handel’s Italian years, having been first heard in Rome at Easter 1708 at the palace of Handel’s important patron Ruspoli. A Passion oratorio by Alessandro Scarlatti had preceded it by a few days at the residence of another Roman patron, Cardinal Ottoboni. There being a Vatican embargo on opera in the city, Handel turned to sacred oratorio to embody his rapidly expanding musical vocabulary, though the characters are not lacking in flesh-and-blood realism.

The central character of the risen Christ is absent and his Resurrection is represented through the experiences of his closest followers, as well as a rhetorical contest between the authentic Angel and the fallen one, Lucifer. Lorenzo Regazzo played the latter part as a caricature. At his first ‘entrance’ he exults in the belief that the death of his rival has vindicated him and that he is about to enjoy the last laugh. Bombastic in the recitative and self-satisfied in his first aria ‘Caddi, è ver’, Regazzo established the face and the upper limbs as the expressive reinforcements for his resonant, supple bass-baritone. Knitted brows, wide eyes and political orator-style hand-gestures accompanied his impeccable traversal of the difficult intervals of this aria. The importation of devices from the basso buffo Italian opera tradition in which the singer also excels added colour to the opening scene with the Angel but the monster expressions in which he indulged became a little tiresome in his concluding aria of incantation, ‘O voi, dell’Erebo’, with its seemingly endless runs. He only needed a pair of protruding teeth and bloodshot eyes to complete the picture. Camilla Tilling presented a combative Angel in her opening aria celebrating the triumph of darkness over light, the declamation aggressive, and the runs quite abrasive.

Camilla Tilling. Photograph: Anna HultThese two artists both hit the ground running, however, while Kate Royal as Mary Magdalene took a while to find her stride. The first section of her aria appealing for time to grieve was uncertain and lacking in shape. A great improvement in the middle section, where the two recorders included in the instrumentation came into their own, led to greater clarity of focus in the da capo, as she finally connected with the character’s feelings.

Having successfully conquered her nerves, Royal left no doubt of her growing artistry. Magdalene’s ambiguous feelings as she sets off for the sepulchre, uncertain of what she may find, were eloquently portrayed in the recitative before ‘Ho un non so che nel cor’, then Royal created a palpable sense of the air being cleared in the jubilant bounce of the aria itself. Her showpiece aria in the final scene has offspring in at least one of the late oratorio masterpieces, the celebratory ‘Let the bright seraphim’ from “Samson”, and was scintillatingly done.

What imagination Handel applies to the orchestral support here. The alternation of oboes with violin and viola da gamba solos was breathtaking. Earlier something similar had accompanied Magdalene’s declaration of faith which finally vanquishes Lucifer, ‘Per me già di morire no paventò Gesù’. Handel may do without Christ himself but in Royal’s utterly concentrated performance of this aria his presence could be vividly felt.

Kate Royal. ©EMI ClassicsThe casting of the two sopranos differentiated them well, with Royal’s fuller, richer timbre lending Magdalene the vulnerable humanity that the Angel lacks. The latter’s function is mainly that of a contestant in an ongoing pantomimic joust with Lucifer but his relatively early demise does give her time for one proper cantabile, the aria ‘Se per colpa di donna infelice’, with an irresistible solo cello accompaniment gave Tilling an opportunity to show a different musical personality, which she took.

Sonia Prina has a pure and authentic contralto voice which can encompass the low tessitura prescribed by Handel for Cleophas in her first aria without the fear of freakish and confusing baritonality of timbre. It is fully integrated throughout its range, moves smoothly across the registers and offers a sound at its upper limit that is thoroughly agreeable. She was well cast here as the noble Cleophas. She is the performer of the furious ‘tempest’ aria, later to become a Handelian trademark. One was not unaware of the difficulties of ‘Naufragando va per l’onde’: far from it, the listener’s fingers were firmly crossed as she scrambled twice through the rapid divisions to emerge safe and sound. She is a physical performer who could profitably follow an operatic career.

Toby Spence. Photograph: Mitch JenkinsThe part of St John was well served by Toby Spence. If a couple of his arias seem generic and short of specific appeal, ‘Quando è parto dell’affetto’ was a high point of the evening. To a background bed of lute, viola da gamba and organ, Spence balanced a sweet mezza voce with ringing attack on the high opening notes of repeated falling phrases in which the apostle affirms the immovability of faith. He followed with what seemed absolutely natural and sincere decorations in the da capo.

Emmanuelle Haïm conducted from the harpsichord. Hers was a partnership with Concert d’Astrée, rather than a matter of control. There was little doubt of her star quality, however, as in her blend of flaming red (hair) and black (frock), she used her whole upper body to draw from the players a distinctive sound at tempos which were fast and with a theatrical continuity in which no applause was permitted as one number led into the next with hardly a pause. The premiere, with its painted backdrops, must have been more operatic than this. Concert d’Astrée is yet another of these virtuoso early-music bands which are now so ubiquitous, this a notably youthful one with a visible joy in playing.

With such a dedicated ensemble, the composer’s musical originality was evident throughout this performance, indeed often enhanced by decisions made by the conductor. Often the difference between accompaniment to singers and orchestral ritornelli was strongly marked by keeping the volume of the former down to a minimal level; St John’s aria which opens Part 2, with its hopeful analogy between the rising sun and the revival of the dead, was a conspicuous example. Sometimes one can only admire the invention. Magdalene’s rainbow aria in Scene 4 of Part 2, for example, is harmonically adventurous, its tonal excursions explicitly mirroring the character’s elation. St John’s ‘turtle-dove’ aria has the conventional flute obbligato but interrupted by periodic rapidly descending unison string scales to represent the attacks on the nest by birds of prey.

Sometimes, however, I found myself wondering whether Handel overdoes the instrumental experimentation. Hardly a vocal number has the same accompanying forces. One appreciates the eagerness of the young composer to put into practice his multitude of ideas and to try out a range of instrumental combinations but he does not always avoid profligacy. In the afore-mentioned ‘Naufragando va per l’onde’, thrilling enough in itself, he gilds the lily by an abrupt change of mood for the middle section. This is recognisably the work of exuberant youth yet to learn that more can mean less.

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