Thursday 31 January 2008

Concert Review - Handel La Resurrezione

On Tuesday we went off to Christ Church, Spitalfields for a performance of Handel's La Resurrezione given by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players. It was the first time that I had visited the church since the 1980's, when I saw Arleen Auger and Della Jones in Handel's Alcina (quite superb) and Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (less so). Since then the interior has been gloriously restored, making it one of the wonders of London, but rather less suitable for a concert venue.

Seats were rather crammed into the nave (no rake of course) and the singers and players were on a high platform, so that sightlines (from Row R) were decent but leg room and general personal space was at a premium. At the interval complimentary drinks were served (included in the ticket price) which meant that a remarkably speedy bar service could be provided.

The cast for the performance was remarkably starry. Rosemary Joshua was the Angel, Gillian Webster was the Magdalene, Sonia Prina was Mary Cleophas, Topi Lehtipuu was St. John and Jonathan Lemalu was Lucifer. There was, of course, no chorus but each half finished with an operatic style coro in which all the singers participated.

Though the work is an oratorio it was written to get round the Roman ban on opera and performed in static settings in Prince Ruspoli's Palazzo. Ruspoli engaged a huge orchestra (21 violins, 5 double basses), McCreesh's was smaller but still on a generous scale (16 violins, 2 double basses). The plot, such as it is, interleaves Christ's Harrowing of Hell with the activities on earth between his Crucifiction and Resurrection. Christ himself never appears, neither does his mother, though both are referred to in the libretto (by the court poet of ex-Queen Christina of Sweden, then living in Rome).

The opera opens with a spectacular aria for the Angel, with a descending phrase almost describing his/her descent into Hell. From then on Christ's Harrowing of Hell and his triumph over Death are described in a series of duologues between the Angel and Lucifer. Rosemary Joshua's Angel was technically quite brilliant and rather charming, but her habit of keeping her nose in her score for much of the time was rather annoying. Especially as there was no sense of her being unprepared, her performance was dazzling. Jonathan Lemalu made a charming villain as Lucifer and it is not his fault that we are never allowed to see him DO anything, it is all reportage.

Back on earth, Mary Magdalene (Gillian Webster) and Mary Cleophas (Sonia Prina) are both lamenting Christ's loss and have various degrees of trust in his return. Magdalene was written for Margerita Durastantini, one of Handel's long time supporters, but she could only sing one performance; the Pope objected and she was replaced by a castrato (no women allowed). Magdalene gets most of the show's hit numbers and is probably the most fully rounded character, beautifully realised by Webster. Mary Cleophas was sung by the wonderfully dark voiced Sonia Prina, though in her fast numbers her tight vibrato tended to occlude her passage work somewhat.

The two women are comforted by St. John (Topi Lehtipuu) whose great confidence in Christ's forthcoming resurrection is indicated by his series of trusting, pastoral arias (no trouble and questing here); beautiful but I came to want a little more edge, though some of Handel's orchestration was ravishing, and ravishingly realised by McCreesh and his performers.

The problem is that nothing actually happens, the 3 simply lament and recount. We don't even get St. John's encounter with the Virgin, he simply reports it. The language is a little over-heated at times which does not help the drama.

The piece is a relatively concise work and received a fine performance from McCreesh and his ensemble. If I seem a little reserved it is because though I enjoyed the performance it did not hold me the way the best Handel performances can. This might be because of a lack of sympathy with the work itself. I have a sneaking regard for Handel's other Italian oratorio, but only because much of it is familiar from other works. As this was the first time I had ever heard La Resurrezione live, I have few other performances to compare against. So the critic in me is only left to puzzle, was it them or was it me?


  1. Anonymous6:49 pm

    If it was you, it was me too. Not Handel's most riveting work but this ensemble made the very best of it.

  2. Anonymous1:47 pm

    I feel very sorry for you not enjoying this performance. I have to say that I was very fortunate to also attend Handel's La Resurrezione given by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players but I attended in Rome at the beautiful Pallaza Collona. Maybe the setting had something to do with it but I thought it was wonderful and now I am looking to purchase a recording so I can re-live it.


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