Challenge Classics CC72120
Live recording: 26 April 2001.
Released in 2003.
Angelo: Nancy Argenta, soprano
Maddalena: Maria Cristina Kiehr, soprano
Cleofe: Marijana Mijanovic, mezzo-soprano
San Giovanni: Marcel Reijans, tenor
Lucifero: Klaus Mertens, bass
Combattinmento Consort Amsterdam (on modern instruments)
Jan Willem de Vriend, director
Although for a long time the librettos of Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and La Resurrezione were dismissed as unwieldy or slow moving while the music itself received little attention, Handel’s earliest oratorios composed in Rome between 1707 and 1708 have both become considerably more popular in recent times. Indeed, arguments that they are undramatic or of little interest have been proved utterly wrong. Both of Handel’s Catholic oratorios – really operas on religious topics, much like the later English theatre works – are fabulous gems.
La Resurrezione was composed for the Marchese Ruspoli as part of his spectacular Easter celebrations in 1708. Handel resisted attempts to convert him to the Roman Catholic Church, but this oratorio proves he certainly did not resist the influence of its music. In addition to Handel’s own artistic originality and vivid brilliance, his absorption of the styles of composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonio Caldara is plainly evident. Another influence was Corelli, who led the unusually large orchestra that probably consisted of about 21 violins, 4 violas, a viola da gamba, 5 cellos, 5 double basses, 4 oboes (who also doubled on recorders and flute), 2 trumpets, theorbo, and harpsichord. It is also possible that a bassoonist used trombone in music where Handel indicated trumpets.
The libretto was written by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, a member of the Arcadian Academy, yet the intense emotions and vivid drama are far removed from pastoral musings. The libretto does not feature a musical portrayal of Christ, but instead a series of comments from Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas, and St. John. Their grief is potent, and their subsequent rejoicing after the Angel announces His resurrection is infectious. Furthermore, the oratorio’s opening scene featuring a gloating Angel’s arrival at the gates of hell – and Lucifer’s impotent venom – is Handel at his most purely theatrical.
This is the fifth recording of this captivating work, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable and valuable addition to its predecessors. Do not be fooled by its description as a ‘live recording’, its obscure Dutch label, or the fact that the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam plays on modern instruments. Such things may put some people off trying this, but, to be blunt, that would be their loss: the sound quality is magnificent, the product is well documented (the excellent essay and libretto translation are written by scholar Anthony Hicks), and the orchestra’s playing is impeccably stylish and compelling.
Although this performance is not without a few tiny quirks, I never sensed that anything was being done to detract from the characters in the story or the musical qualities in Handel’s score. Indeed, after listening to this interpretation a few times, I was struck by how natural and ‘right’ much of it seems. Credit for that must go to director Jan Willem De Vriend, who judges each number perfectly. The story flows with captivating effect, and the music is always fresh and shapely. Tempos are never sluggish or forced to either extreme, and each ritornello perfectly captures its aria’s essence.
The first-rate cast features universally excellent singers. Admittedly, most have done more remarkable work elsewhere, but their commitment to the cause and general vocal quality is beyond dispute. Nancy Argenta’s Angel is not as smooth as perhaps it once could have been, but her graduation up the celestial hierarchy (she sang Maddalena on Ton Koopman’s recording, Erato) is most welcome. Maria Cristina Kiehr is ideally cast as Maddalena, and is certainly an improvement on Jennifer Smith (Marc Minkowski, DG) and Judith Nelson (Nicholas McGegan, Harmonia Mundi). Some of the ornamentation in the da capo of ‘Ferma l’ali’ is a little swoopy, but her engaging characterisation – including a vivacious ‘Ho un non so che nel cor’ - more than compensates for it. Marijana Mijanovic is particularly impressive as Cleofe, and her ‘Naufragando va per l’ onde’ is just one of the recording’s many outstanding moments. Klaus Mertens’s Lucifer evokes a certain degree of sympathy during his hopeless tirades, and Mertens obviously enjoys such villainous music without needing to become heavy-handed. Marcel Reijans is perhaps the least satisfactory element, but his strong and rather legato tenor gets the job done without creating any upsets.
This is the most consistent performance of La Resurrezione on disc since the oratorio was first recorded by Christopher Hogwood (Decca). It is less wilfully eccentric than Koopman, and more even in vocal quality than McGegan. Hogwood’s freshness has still not diminished, but before this new recording I had personally rated Minkowski’s as the most dramatically gripping version (his San Giovanni, John Mark Ainsley, remains by far the best). However, an ideal La Resurrezione might have been something that took Minkowski’s flamboyance and matched it with Hogwood’s tastefulness and gentler handling of the orchestra. I would suggest that Jan Willem de Vriend and his Combattimento Consort Amsterdam have achieved exactly that.
© David Vickers - April 2003
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