Monday, May 8, 2017

American Bach Soloists’ Splendid Account of Handel’s Operatic Oratorio

Yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, American Bach Soloists concluded its 28th season with a performance of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 47 oratorio La resurrezione (the resurrection). This was written early in Handel’s life, when he traveled to Rome to extend his music education; and it was first performed on the Easter Sunday of 1708. As was previously observed on this site, Handel made the trip to build up his skills as an opera composer, only to discover that Pope Clement XI had imposed a ban on operatic performances. With HWV 47 Handel “got even” by providing the Catholic Church with an oratorio with decidedly operatic qualities. The Vatican saw what he was up to and was not amused.

However, if we set aside the Pope’s discontent, we can appreciate that HWV 47 is operatic not only by virtue of its virtuoso solo offerings but also for its narrative techniques. Somewhat in the spirit of many of today’s action movies, the story is set in two worlds. There is the “divine” world, which involves dialog between an angel (soprano Mary Wilson) and Lucifer (baritone Jesse Blumberg); and there is the earthly reality in the wake of the Crucifixion. This is represented through only three characters, Mary Magdalene (soprano Nola Richardson), Mary of Clopas, also called Cleophas (mezzo Meg Bragle), and John the Evangelist (tenor Kyle Stegall). Only in one scene do these worlds meet, but that scene has a significant legacy in music history.

In Music of the Middle Ages Gustave Reese suggested that liturgical drama had its origins in the tenth century through the Quem quaeritis? (whom do you seek) of the Easter liturgy. This was a dialog set at the tomb of the crucified Jesus involving the “three Marys” (mother of Jesus, the Magdalene, and the sister of Lazarus) and an angel. The angel stands before the tomb, which has been opened, and asks the question. They answer that they seek Jesus’ body, and the angel replies by declaring the miracle of the resurrection. When the chant for this text was divided across the characters, one might say that opera as we know it was born, papal discomfort notwithstanding. Handel’s librettist, Carlo Sigismondo Capece, tweaked things a bit by eliminating the Virgin Mary and changing one of the other Marys; but this is still a dramatization of the Quem quaeritis? episode that honors its tenth-century origins.

Musically HWV 47 can be regarded as an omen of Handel operas to come. There are definitely signs of a young composer still trying to find his way. Many of the da capo arias involve abrupt shifts into and out of the middle section, and even those who do not know Italian very well can detect signs of Handel having trouble finding his way around the words. Nevertheless, when one listens to this oratorio in its entirety, one can almost perceive Handel working his way up the learning curve. By the time he gets to the “Quem quaeritis? moment,” he is ready for a little action, even if it is minimal; and each of the unfolding da capo arias seems to have just a bit more integrity than its predecessor.

Needless to say, Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas did not present this performance as a lesson in either music history or Handel biography. He took the score on its own terms and delivered a delightfully energetic reading. There were some particularly imaginative approaches to instrumentation of the continuo with different combinations of gamba, cello, bass, and bassoon, not always joined by the harpsichord. Even when only the strings were involved, Thomas always seemed to have a technique for endowing each selection with its own characteristic set of sonorities, yet another approach to presenting a sacred oratorio with the effective dramatic qualities of opera. The result was a two-and-a-half-hour performance that sped by with dazzling rapidity but without ever feeling rushed. Clearly, more oratorio performances should experience the benefit of such dramatic sensibilities!

The apparently modest ensemble with an impressively bold sound (courtesy of Michael Strickland)

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