Ars Lyrica performs Handel's "La Resurrezione" on March 9 (in Houston) and 10 (in Austin). This rarely-heard work, which dates from the composer’s youthful sojourn to Italy, narrates Jesus’ resurrection as witnessed by Mary Magdalene, her companion Mary Cleophas, St John the Apostle, an Angel, and Lucifer himself. Handel’s telling of this tale, which is organized around eight distinct scenes in two large parts, is full of soaring melodies and striking orchestral colors.
Here is a bit of background, from my program notes:
Handel composed La Resurrezione di nostro Signor Gesù Cristo for the Marquis Francesco Maria Ruspoli, at whose home the work was first performed in concert in 1708, on Easter evening. Ruspoli, an important patron of the arts and prince of the church, was Handel’s principal employer during the young composer’s residency in the Eternal City. In addition to La Resurrezione, Ruspoli had also commissioned for the same season a passion setting by Alessandro Scarlatti. With multiple performances of both works at the Bonelli Palace in Rome during Holy Week of 1708, one wonders how the good Marquis and his friends found any time to attend services!
Thanks to carefully kept payment records, much is known about the première of La Resurrezione. Though not fully staged, Handel’s oratorio was given in front of painted backdrops that depicted each scene. With the composer in charge, the virtuoso violinist Arcangelo Corelli served as concertmaster for an unusually large orchestra that included a few exotic instruments: the viola da gamba, for example, is featured prominently in several movements. The cast included five of Italy’s finest singers, including Marguerita Durastanti, who created a stir as Mary Magdalene since at that time women were forbidden by papal order from singing in public in Rome; she seems to have been replaced by a castrato in subsequent performances. The roles of the Angel and Mary Cleophas were likewise sung by castrati whose ranges are good match for a modern lyric soprano and alto countertenor, respectively. Some 1500 libretti were printed for at least three performances of the work, something of a record for a new oratorio in Rome at the turn of the century.
One reason why oratorios were so popular in early eighteenth-century Rome is because the genre was effectively opera in disguise: oratorio fulfilled the taste for large-scale dramatic musical works while obeying (at least to the letter of the law) the papacy’s periodic decrees against theatrical entertainments of all sorts, including operas. Performances were given in the grandest Roman houses and palaces, which often had private theaters or rooms large enough to accommodate several hundred spectators. These rooms were often lavishly decorated for oratorio performances and the singers costumed in elaborate operatic garb.
More operatic in nature than Handel’s earlier allegorical oratorio Il trinfo del Tempo, La Resurrezione was a great success from the start. Its characters, from the swaggering Lucifer to the grief-stricken Mary Magdalene, are dramatically conceived and each sings arias in the latest operatic fashion. (Handel in fact re-used several of Resurrezione arias in later operas and oratorios, in one case not changing a single word of text!) The lack of any real choral writing also separates this work from Handel’s later English-language oratorios, in which the chorus is often the most prominent voice. The two choral numbers in La Resurrezione are intended for all the soloists, in the fashion of the “coro” that typically provides closure for Italian Baroque operas.