Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 18 April, 2022
Venue: St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London
La Resurrezione (1708) is effectively Handel’s Easter Oratorio, composed in Rome during his Italian travels. Although he never gave up his Protestant faith, however, it is very different from the type of composition he would have written had he remained in Lutheran Germany, or that of his contemporary, J. S. Bach, would cultivate in his many cantatas and sacred works during the periods of his ecclesiastical employment.
In Papal-dominated Rome, where opera was essentially banned, the sacred and moral compositions which were approved were often really stage works under a different guise, following more or less exactly the form of the then prevalent opera seria. It did not matter, therefore, that Handel drew upon his experience of writing secular cantatas, the moral allegory Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, and the Italian opera he had composed for Florence, Rodrigo, when his patron Francesco Ruspoli commissioned an oratorio for the Easter festivities at his Roman palace in 1708. Elaborate scenery, a large orchestra (including Corelli leading the violins), highly vivid and contrasting music, and a deliberative libretto comprising dialogue among earthly Biblical characters on the one hand and the extra-terrestrial figures of an Angel and Lucifer on the other, created virtually all the drama that could be conveyed on any operatic stage.
The sizeable, early-eighteenth-century church of St Martin in the Fields was a venue perhaps not too dissimilar from that where the Oratorio would have first been heard. It certainly provided the reverberant space for Laurence Cummings’s vigorous interpretation with the London Handel Orchestra here, given on Easter Monday as part of both the London Handel Festival and the St Martin in the Fields Easter Festival. Although there were fewer than the twenty-one violins which were reportedly used at Handel’s first performance in Rome, there was still an emphatic body of sound from the ensemble – including a resplendent trio of a pair of trumpets and one trombone for some ceremonial numbers – acting as the springboard for some boldly declaimed performances from the singers. That suited the argumentative rhetoric for much of the work – especially the scenes between Rachel Redmond’s firmly projected, vibrato-laden Angel and Callum Thorpe’s unflustered but equally powerful Lucifer. Having Redmond first appear at the back of the orchestra, but in front of the brass, created a visibly and audibly awing sense of confrontation between the two.
The other singers maintained a firm grasp of their dialogue as Ed Lyon’s St John (the Evangelist) confidently awaited the return of Christ on the third day in the terms expounded in his Gospel; and Nardus Williams and Helen Charlston as the two Marys, first lamenting the dead Jesus before pursuing expectantly that hope which John has held out before them. Given the libretto’s expression of their awaiting the reappearance of Christ as like the return of a lover, however, there was some lack of tenderness in their performance at times which would have provided more engaging contrast. But overall, enthusiasm and excitement were palpable in their account of this work which dramatises the central, world-changing event of the Christian faith but (perhaps oddly) does not actually give Christ a voice in the composition himself.