Arts & Events

Handel’s Oratorio La Resurrezione by American Bach Soloists

James Roy MacBean
Tuesday May 23, 2017 - 06:51:00 AM

At the tender age of twenty-one, George Frideric Handel left Hamburg on a trip to Italy, where he intended to acquaint himself with Italian musical styles. Handel visited Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice, but he spent most of his Italian stay in Rome. Though operas were banned by papal decree, Italian cantatas offered composers ample opportunities for vocal writing. Indeed, many cantatas were operas in all but name, and they often were given with elaborate scenic effects. On Easter Sunday, 1708, Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione was performed in Palazzo Bonelli, and a second performance occurred the next day.  

Handel had learned well the Italian style of vocal music, featuring a supple melodic line of great expressiveness. For his orchestra, Handel had more than forty musicians, led by none other than Arcangelo Corelli, with Handel himself presumably leading from the harpsichord. With a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, La Resurrezione treats the emotional responses of Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas, and Saint John the Evangelist as they deal with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. There is also a subplot involving a struggle between Good and Evil, these two poles being represented by an Angel, on one hand, and Lucifer, on the other. In this combat between, let us say, Heaven and Hell, Lucifer can rage all he wants, he can even cause earthquakes to occur, but his efforts are in vain and he is obliged to return to the abysses of Hell.  

American Bach Soloists presented Handel’s La Resurrezione in four performances throughout the Bay Area May 5-8. I attended the Sunday, May 7 performance at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Veteran soprano Mary Wilson sang the role of the angel, and her voice was heavenly indeed. Lucifer was sung by baritone Jesse Blumberg, and though he was a forceful Lucifer, it was a foregone conclusion that Lucifer would lose out in the end.  

The real star of La Resurrezione is Mary Magdalene, sung exquisitely here by soprano Nola Richardson. Her clear, bright tone was ravishing and her Italian diction was impeccable. Richardson’s technical fluidity in handling Handel’s coloratura passages was awesome. But that is not all; Nola Richardson also invests great emotional intensity in each role I have heard her sing. Her Mary Magdalene is distraught at the crucifixion of Christ, then wavering between anguish and hope as she awaits the promised resurrection. When Jesus appears to her, as she recounts to Mary Cleophas, she was both awestruck and overjoyed, and she sought to kiss Jesus’s wounds, but he spoke the words “Noli mi tangere” and disappeared. Nola Richardson is a vocal superstar in the making, and we in the Bay Area are fortunate in having heard Ms. Richardson quite a few times during her 2012-13 tenure with the American Bach Soloists Academy and since then as a guest artist with ABS.  

Mary Cleophas was sung here by mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle in her debut appearance with ABS. Her lustrous mid-range voice offered a nice contrast to the high soprano voices of Nola Richardson and Mary Wilson. The role of Saint John the Evangelist was sung by tenor Kyle Stegall, who possesses a fine-grained tone and a supple technique that enables him to achieve great expressivity.  

As for the orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas the musicians performed with period instruments. Their ensemble playing was precise, and occasional solo turns by flautist Janet See and principal cellist Frédéric Rosselet were a joy to behold. Young George Frideric Handel seems to have been a quick learner, and the Italian musical style he picked up during his stay in Italy would serve him exceedingly well in his career to come.