Handel’s vastly underrated oratorio brings two festivals to a close in suitable style.
Although not a total rarity, Handel’s La resurrezione, HWV 47 does not grace concert halls with anywhere near the frequency that its music merits. This is not only a shame in that audiences are missing out on hearing such a stirring piece live, but also because it means that when a performance does occur it is unlikely to be at the ‘right’ time. Such is the frequency with which they appear, it is possible to hear the St John Passion or St Matthew Passion at any time of the year, but if one wished to experience either specifically on Good Friday that would pose no problem. Outings for La resurrezione, on the other hand, are still infrequent enough that the would-be listener normally has to take any opportunity they can to hear it. This could consequently mean attending a performance during Lent, as happened with a strong interpretation from Le Concert d’Astrée at the Barbican in 2009, as it is likely to be the only one around for a while. It was therefore highly refreshing this year to hear La resurrezione at the most appropriate of times on Easter Monday.
The performance from the London Handel Orchestra, directed from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings, constituted the final concert of both the 2022 London Handel Festival and St Martin-in-the-Fields’ own Easter Festival, although concerts are continuing at the latter venue as part of its ongoing programme of music. While a church is the most appropriate of settings for the piece, it is worth noting that it was not originally performed in one. The oratorio, which has a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, was originally presented on Easter Sunday, 8 April 1708 in the Palazzo of Handel’s then patron, the Marchese Francesco Ruspoli. Roman censorship actually forbade opera at the time, but the performance would certainly have felt operatic as it featured lavish staging and scenery, while the orchestra, which included 39 strings of varying types alone, was certainly large for the period.
“It was highly refreshing to hear La resurrezione on Easter Monday”
The oratorio itself details events from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, and features an Angel, Lucifer, Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas and John the Evangelist. It juxtaposes a battle for the world between the Angel and Lucifer (although the final version, unlike an earlier one, makes Christ’s ultimate ascension to heaven feel inevitable), with three very personal responses to the death of Jesus, before sorrow gives way to joy with the resurrection. However, even allowing for the fact that the music is designed to generate a host of contrasts, this performance brought them out to the full by virtue of a set of soloists whose sounds were both highly distinct and exceptionally appropriate for the parts that each was playing.
The interaction between Rachel Redmond’s Angel and Callum Thorpe’s Lucifer was strong from the outset. With Redmond standing on a raised platform behind the orchestra and Thorpe positioned on the floor in front, their vocal ‘sparring’ felt like a battle between good and evil that was taking place across the realms of time and space. Redmond’s soprano was clear and bright, and the commitment she revealed in her interpretation saw her hit some quite incredible vocal heights. Thorpe’s rich, dark and expansive bass stunned from the moment he first opened his mouth meaning that, in spite of us knowing that he would ultimately be defeated, he very much felt like a force with which to be reckoned.
Nardus Williams’ soprano created some glistening and nuanced sounds that conveyed Mary Magdalene’s sorrow and fragility to the full, even as her voice seemed especially secure. Helen Charlston was a highly engaging Mary Cleophas as her mezzo-soprano felt extremely vibrant, but was put to use to produce an exceptionally clean and pure sound. As John the Evangelist, Ed Lyon revealed both a smooth and sensitive tenor with his performance of ‘Così la tortorella’, in which he contrasted its contemplative and joyous elements to maximum effect, being particularly persuasive. With Cummings and the London Handel Orchestra also being on top form, all of the necessary drama was injected into the piece so that, unlike the very first performance, there was no need for it to be played as anything other than a straight oratorio.
• For details of all forthcoming concerts at the venue visit the St Martin-in-the-Fields website.
• Details of the 2023 London Handel Festival will appear in due course on its website.