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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): La Resurrezione (HWV 47)

Sophie Bevan (Maddalena), Lucy Crowe (Angelo), soprano; Iestyn Davies (Cleofe), alto; Hugo Hymas (Giovanni), tenor; Ashley Riches (Lucifero), bass
The English Concert
Dir: Harry Bicket

rec: April 18 - 21, 2021, Newcastle, Sage Gateshead
Linn Records - CKD 675 (2 CDs) (© 2022) (1.57'18")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Katharina Spreckelsen, Sarah Humphrys, recorder, oboe; Lisa Beznosiuk, transverse flute; Hugo Rodríguez Arteaga, Joseph Jones, bassoon; Mark Bennett, Russell Gilmour, trumpet; Adrian France, trombone; Nadja Zwiener, Alice Evans, Julia Kuhn, Sijie Chen, Persephone Gibbs, Huw Daniel, Tuomo Suni, Elizabeth MacCarthy, Kinga Ujszászi, Annie Gard, Emilia Benjamin, George Cifford, violin; Alfonso Leal del Ojo, Louise Hogan, Stefanie Heichelheim, viola; Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba; Joseph Crouch, Jonathan Byers, Sarah McMahon, cello; Christine Sticher, Carina Cosgrave, double bass; Sergio Bucheli, theorbo; Thomas Foster, harpsichord; Christopher Bucknall, harpsichord, organ

As far as the genre of the oratorio is concerned, Handel has become best-known for his oratorios on biblical subjects which he composed in England in the post-opera stage of his career. Among them Messiah stands out: today it is by far his most popular work, and in his own time he performed it frequently. The recording reviewed here brings us back to the early stages of his career, and to his first sacred oratorio. Before that he had written Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, which may be considered a 'spiritual oratorio', as it has a moral tenor, but not biblical. La Resurrezione is about the events from the death of Jesus at Good Friday to the day of is resurrection. The subject is biblical, but in the way the librettist, Carlo Sigismondo Capece, worked it out he took quite some liberties. The characters are all taken from the Bible: Mary Magdalene (Maddalena), Mary Cleophas (Cleofe), Jesus's disciple John (Giovanni) and an angel (Angelo). The only character who is not mentioned in the narrative of the gospels is the devil (Lucifero). However, like in many Passion oratorios, the various characters are given much more important roles than they have in the gospels, and their words are entirely from the pen of Capece.

One could call this oratorio a sacred opera. Handel took great care in making it as dramatic as possible, for instance in the direct confrontation between the Angel and Lucifero. It happens right at the start: after the sinfonia that opens the work, the Angel bursts onto the scene, accompanied by a pair of trumpets, to proclaim Jesus's victory on death. It takes the devil by surprise and he shows himself adamant and refuses to admit defeat. In the second part another confrontation of these two takes place, and they even sing a short duet.

However, overall the subject does not allow for much drama. The devil does not approach any of the other characters. During most of the oratorio they rather reflect on the events of Good Friday. The two women express their grief over Jesus's death, but John reminds them that he promised to return to life. In this work Mary Magdalene is the one who is most stricken by grief, whereas John is at the other end of the scale - a voice of reason and confidence. It is in the second part that the resurrection is taking place and gradually the happy truth of Christ's resurrection is sinking in. The oratorio ends with a jubilant chorus.

We are pretty well informed about the first performance, which took place in the palace of Prince Ruspoli, one of Handel's patrons. La Resurrezione was the last work in a series of oratorios which were performed during Lent of 1708; it was preceded by an oratorio from the pen of Alessandro Scarlatti. The whole thing - the performance, the preparations and rehearsals - was rather costly. David Vickers, in his liner-notes, mentions that Ruspoli spent 1000 scudi, approximately £90,000 in modern terms. This was largely due to the size of the orchestra involved in the performances. It consisted of 22 violins, four violas, five cellos, five double basses, four oboes, two trumpets, trombone, theorbo, viola da gamba and harpsichord, plus transverse flutes and recorders. The latter were probably played by the oboists. No trombone part has survived, and it is assumed that the trombone played in the basso continuo in those episodes where the trumpets are involved.

It is not exactly known which sangers took part in the first performance, but is assumed that the roles of the angel and of Mary Cleophas were sung by castratos, whereas the part of Mary Magdalene was taken by Margherita Durastanti, which was in violation of the papal edict which forbade women's participation in public performances. It did not remain unnoticed, and after a papal admonition, the second performance on Easter Monday may have seen her place being taken by a castrato.

In our time much Passion music is performed during Lent and especially the week before Easter. In comparison, there is hardly any awareness of Eastertide. Today this is mostly confined to the two days of Easter. Liturgically speaking it spans the period from Easter to Whitsun (Pentecost). That leaves plenty of opportunity to perform music connected to the resurrection and its aftermath. However, little of such music is performed, and Handel's oratorio suffers from it, as it is seldom performed in public. There are several recordings in the catalogue, though, and that means that this recent production has to compete with a number of others. I don't know all of them; I reviewed two recordings on this site, and was not entirely satisfied with either of them, for various reasons.

This recording is not really better, I'm afraid, despite its unmistakable merits. One may differ about the way the role of Lucifero is sung. I found Mitchell Sandler in Marco Vitale's recording (Brilliant Classics, 2009) a bit too harmless, but David Vickers, in his review in The Gramophone, found it "refreshing that Mitchell Sandler’s Lucifero is a plausibly suave Prince of Darkness rather than the blustering pantomime villain one usually hears." Maybe there is some middle way between these. Ashley Riches is certainly very dramatic and fully explores the dark nature of his character. One may argue that he treats it a little too much like a Polyphemus. Hugo Hymas is the perfect embodiment of John: his singing is clear and firm, and that fits the character pretty well. 'Caro figlio' is a good specimen of his approach. Lucy Crowe is impressive as the angel; she firmly stands her ground in the confrontation with the devil, and takes the lead in the songs of praise. She shows her sensitivity in 'D'amor fu condiglio'. The feelings of Mary Magdalene are expressed convincingly by Sophie Bevan, especially in 'Ferma l'ali'. Iestyn Davies delivers an expressive performance in 'Piangete, sì, piangete', but is too restrained in the A-part of 'Naufragando va per l'onde'.

My main problem is, as usual, the style of singing. All singers use too much vibrato most of the time. Lucy Crowe and Hugo Hymas are most successful in reducing it sometimes. In particular in arias in a slower tempo it has a damaging effect. On top of that, in particular Crowe and Bevan take too much freedom in their dacapos, virtually rewriting the entire part. The dacapo of the first aria, 'Disserratevi, o porte d'Avero', is almost unrecognizable. It is an annoying habit of some singers. It is disappointing that in no recording the orchestra is as large as we know it was in the first performance, except in the one that Christopher Hogwood directed in what may have been the very first 'authentic' performance in modern times. For me that recording is still the standard, not only because of the orchestral line-up, but also the quality and stylistic consistency of the vocal cast.

This recording certainly has good things to offer, and there are many things I have enjoyed. On balance, though, there are just too many issues to really recommend it.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Iestyn Davies
Hugo Hymas
Ashley Riches
The English Concert

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