Few composers contain the contradictory surprises of G. F. Handel. Those who know him only through his oratorio Messiah think him a pious evangelist and tend to be shocked by the bumptious onomatopoeic animal songs in his oratorio Israel in Egypt, not to mention its several creepy anthems gloating over the slain Egyptians.
Add to this list the risqué scenes from Handel’s opera “Julius Caesar in Egypt,” and any single characterization of the composer seams inadequate.
Over the last weekend (April 17-19) Ruben Valenzuela’s Bach Collegium San Diego gave a robust performance of La Resurrezione, a little known and quite early Handel work (from 1707) that revealed him to be an adventurous—dare we say avant-garde—experimenter of the 18th century.
Although Handel called La Resurrezione a sacred oratorio, it appears to be a closet opera confected and expanded from the slender account of Jesus’ resurrection as recorded in the Gospel of John. This oratorio was devised, with a fanciful libretto supplied by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, as an Easter entertainment for Handel’s patron in Rome, the wealthy and politically connected Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli, in whose palace Handel resided in uncommon luxury.
The reason for composing a closet opera was quite simple: in Rome in the early 18th century, opera was completely forbidden. In 1697, Pope Innocent XI had Rome’s sole opera house torn down and forbade any kind of opera performance because of the “immorality” these works so frequently portrayed. But the cultured Roman nobility, with their elevated literary societies, always looked for ways to avoid papal incursions on their interests, so the marquis commissioned Handel, who had already at age 20 written three operas, to disguise an opera as an oratorio.
Bach Collegium’s vocal soloists brought dramatic fervor to their roles, nudging their essential concert format into a semi-staged opera, with the singers performing their solos and ensembles in front of the orchestra, exiting off stage when they were not part of the drama.
La Resurrezione pivots on two points of dramatic tension: a heated debate between the angel narrator, Angelo, and Satan, called Lucifero, and the anxiety of the women going to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning. As Lucifero, Mischa Bouvier used his vigorous, penetrating bass to give his character’s strident declamation and virulent fioritura a deliciously fearsome edge. Meeting his every assertion, soprano Nell Snaidas’ Angelo offered brightly colored, commanding argument to Satan’s victorious claims at the demise of Jesus. I particularly enjoyed the energetic resonance of Snaidas’ cadenzas with oboist Kathryn Montoya.
With her rich, buoyant soprano, Alice Teyssier communicated a spectrum of emotions as Mary Magdalene, from eloquent grief to imploring devotion and exultation. Handel wrote this role for a celebrated Roman soprano, Margarita Durastante, and Teyssier gave it the panache it deserved. Countertenor Ryland Angel sang Maria Cleofe, one of the three women John’s Gospel claims witnessed the crucifixtion and whose role in the oratorio is to recount the Good Friday events with lamenting commentary. Although some of the rapid figurations in Cleofe’s shipwreck aria, “Naufragando va per l’onde,” escaped Angel, his last aria “Augelletti, ruscelletti” shimmered with haunting, lithe phrases deftly accompanied by unison violins.
Tenor Scott Mello imbued St. John the Evangelist with appropriate fervor and conviction, keeping his narration fresh with varied and subtle phrasing. He gave Handel’s Evangelist a more human and emotional character than the ethereal “above the fray” evangelists of the J. S. Bach passions. Handel’s librettist clearly felt free to embellish his narrative with Roman Catholic theology, having the Evangelist reveal that Jesus’ first appearance was not to Mary Magdalene but to Mary his mother, an event recorded in neither canonical nor apocryphal sources.
Once the resurrection of Jesus is announced by Angelo and the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene rejoices and a triumphal chorus lauds the divine victory. Lucifer bewails his defeat and swears he will return to the deepest layer of Hell to lick his wounds.
Valenzuela conducted with his customary authority and adherence to spirited tempi, ably assisted by his usual cadre of skilled period players who consistently provided fleet, cohesive ensemble. Guest concertmaster Robert Mealy’s clean, highly focused technique appeared to instill more discipline in the violins, compared to resident concertmaster Pierre Joubert’s more flamboyant approach.
Bach Collegium San Diego continues to set a high standard for early music interpretation in Southern California, never content to merely recycle Baroque’s greatest hits. La Resurrezione was performed in La Jolla and San Diego on April 17 and 19, and in Los Angeles at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral on April 18, where it was well-received and favorably reviewed in the Los Angeles Times.
The next offering of Bach Collegium San Diego, May 8 & 9, 2015, in La Jolla and San Diego, will feature Carissimi’s oratorio “Jepthe” and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Actéon.” www.bachcollegiumsd.org