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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel's La Resurrezione

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

Ambition is a driving force which propels many people; others seem to be propelled by accident and circumstance. With most of us I suspect it's a combination of the two.

My favourite composer had ambition by the bucketload, especially as a young man. Georg Friedrich Händel's childhood demonstrated precocious talent in music, and after some cursory legal studies at University he took up his first musical post in 1702. He was 17 and the post was respectable and perfectly ordinary, as organist at the Calvinist cathedral in the town of Halle, where he was born.

Known to us who speak English by the Anglicised name he adopted 25 years later, George Frideric Handel only stayed in that church post for a year. His ambition drew him to Hamburg, and especially its opera house. Over two years he worked his way up from a back-desk violinist to having his first opera, Almira, performed in 1705. The works from this period are exciting but often gauche, lacking refinement and the ability to see the larger picture over a longer time span.

By the middle of 1706 Handel had decided he needed to learn about Italian music - and especially Italian vocal music - at its source, and it is thought that he undertook to journey across Europe late in 1706. He stayed in Italy until 1710 and left it a master composer.

Handel's career in Italy shows his ambition, his ability to network, to play the game, and to learn. He worked in Florence and Venice (where he wrote operas) but his greatest triumphs were in Rome. Despite the Papal ban on opera in Rome, Handel managed to secure connections with a number of influential and wealthy patrons to write cantatas and oratorios which were so close to opera that it didn't really matter.

One of Handel's Roman patrons was the Marquis Francesco Maria Ruspoli. In 1708 Ruspoli was elevated to the rank of Prince by Pope Clement XI, and the Ruspoli fortune was used to support the arts on a lavish scale. Handel was there at exactly the right time and despite not being given any official post in Ruspoli's court, the young German wrote secular cantatas for performance at Ruspoli's artistic gatherings held in his various properties.

Francesco Maria Ruspoli

The climax of this connection came at Easter 1708. Ruspoli's Lenten season of oratorios was concluded on Easter Day, 8 April, with the first performance of Handel's Italian oratorio, La resurrezione (The Resurrection).

It is in fact an unstaged opera on a religious subject, with a text by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, secretary to the Queen of Poland, who was exiled in Rome. Unlike Handel's later English oratorios, there is no chorus. The five soloists are five characters in the drama played out on earth, in heaven, and in hell, and for them Handel created a lavish work in two parts.

Part One of La resurrezione takes place on the Saturday night following the crucifixion. It opens with a lively "sonata" or orchestral introduction which features solos for the oboe, violin and viola da gamba. The orchestra Handel had available in 1708 was enormous, including 21 violins. His concertmaster, playing the violin solos, was none other than Archangelo Corelli, who seems to have thought the 23 year old Saxon a bit of an upstart. [listen]

Van Douven: Arcangelo Corelli

With this uncertain ending the sonata leads straight into the first aria, a dazzling piece sung by the Angel, one of the two immortal characters in the drama. The triumph of the sonata is carried across into the aria which features trumpets. The Angel is regarded as male, even though sung by a soprano (at the first performance a castrato was used). He commands the gates of hell be opened and yield to the might of the king of glory, who comes to hell to break the power of death. [listen]

The other immortal character in the drama is Lucifer, sung by a bass. His accompanied recitative follows hot on the heels of the Angel's aria. In this he expresses outrage at the light and unprecedented harmony which has infiltrated his domain. The echoes he refers to are reflected in Handel's daring and dramatic setting. He boasts that he has returned to Hell in victory after exacting what he sees as revenge on the one who threw him out of heaven. The fall from heaven to hell is expressed in a gigantic descending scale in the voice at the end. [listen]

Lucifer's aria which follows shows that whoever the bass was at the first performance of La resurrezione, he was something special. The aria is one of defiance in which Lucifer remembers his fall and gloats in his success in bringing about the death of Jesus. The voice is required to sing enormous leaps and span the tops of the baritone range and the bottom of the bass range. [listen]

In a recitative Lucifer confronts the Angel directly, defying his demands. Lucifer claims to have vanquished Christ but the Angel explains that Christ has done all this, including his own death, out of love. The conflict and energy of the preceding music is dissipated in the Angel's beautiful aria describing the love of God and the price of redemption. In this the voice is joined in a duet with the solo violin - another solo for Corelli - and the result is ravishingly delicate. [listen]

The recit which follows sees Lucifer deny all this, and still demand that the vanquished Son of God pay him homage. The Angel outlines how Christ has in fact defeated Death and Guilt, and advises Lucifer to hide in terror, as he will soon tremble at Jesus' very name.

Lucifer's outrage at such a suggestion called forth from Handel some of the most outrageous music ever conceived for the bass voice. [listen]

He threatens to convulse hell, and earth and storm the gates of heaven, before summoning - in the bold, striding aria - the powers of darkness to his aid. [listen]

Thus ends the first scene - in our sense of the word - of Part One. From the gates of hell the scene shifts to the earth, and specifically Jerusalem. Here we meet the three mortal players in the drama. Mary Magdalene is sung by the second soprano, Mary Cleopas by the alto, and St John the disciple by the tenor.

This being the second night after the crucifixion, Jesus's followers are grieving his death. Magdalene opens the scene with an accompanied recitative coloured by two recorders and arpeggios on the viola da gamba. The sense of grief hangs on every bar, and the aria which follows is full of sighing phrases which suggest tears and sighs. [listen]

The aria starts over a very long bassnote which suggests the ever-present pangs of grief. Handel seems desperate to take every opportunity to express every aspect of the drama in sound. The middle section of the aria which follows changes time signature - as many of the arias do in this piece - and gives pride of place to the recorders and gamba again. [listen]

In the ensuing recitative Mary Cleopas comes forward to join Magdalene in her weeping for the dead Jesus. Cleopas's aria is darker, inhabiting a world closer to that of Bach's Passions. Handel has the melodic line played by violins and violas in unison, and their angular, tortured melody at times clashes with the bassline. Cleopas sings of endless weeping, and Handel's music paints it perfectly. [listen]

The recit which follows becomes even more explicit, outlining the terrors Jesus suffered on the cross and culminating in a duet for the two grieving women. Led off by another solo for Corelli, the duet describes the nails and thorns which pierced Jesus piercing the hearts of the women in their loss. [listen]

Now St John enters. This is not John the Baptist, who had died some time before, but John the "beloved disciple", who is described in the gospels as leaning on Jesus's breast at the last supper. He injects a reminder of hope into the proceedings, reminding the women in the recitative that Jesus promised to rise again.

John then sings an aria which states that grief born of love within a noble heart doesn't quench the flame of constancy. The middle section of the aria focuses on hope conquering fear when it is born of faith. After the lavish orchestral sounds of all the set pieces so far, Handel's musical palette for John's first aria is restrained in the extreme. There is a solo cello and a continuo accompaniment, over which the tenor's florid exhortation to hope and faith floats like a bird. [listen]

The women respond to John's encouragement and decide to go to the tomb. Cleopas goes one step further, allowing herself to hope to find Jesus not dead but alive. She expresses this in a bravura aria which makes enormous demands on both singer and orchestra. It's clear that Handel had five top-rank virtuoso singers at his disposal. Cleopas's aria could have come straight out of an opera of the period, expressing the metaphor of a ship tossed on a stormy seas. Even when in danger of being sunk by the raging ocean, the ship may yet make it safely to shore if guided steadily by the steersman's skill. So Cleopas expresses her own determination to stay the course despite her grief. [listen]

A gentler note is then struck by John who decides to return to Jesus's mother, whom Jesus entrusted to John's care while he was on the cross. In the recit John describes not only her great suffering but also her great faith to bear such suffering, and this is illustrated in the descriptive aria he sings. The metaphor here is of a turtle-dove who laments when he believes a bird of prey has swooped on the nest and taken his mate. yet when it is discovered that his mate is unharmed and she returns to the nest, he sings for joy. Handel's music in this aria is extraordinary. The laments of the turtle-dove are portrayed in a duet between the flute and the gamba, while the swooping of the bird of prey is clearly heard in the gigantic downward scales in the strings. At the first performance Handel removed these swooping scales, but we don't know why. Were they too difficult to get right? Did he have second thoughts about their appropriateness? Whatever the reason, they are always included in modern performances as they are just so amazingly powerful. As usual, Handel's initial dramatic instincts were always right, but it seems that in 1708 he let his inexperience make him err on the side of caution. [listen]

This central scene of Part One of La resurrezione ends the way it started, with an aria by Magdalene, but what a transformation. At the start of the scene she was distraught and unable to stop her weeping. Now, despite her grief and fear, she entertains hope that Jesus may indeed be returned to her. She expresses this in a bright and cheery aria which sounds rather operatic. Handel clearly thought so too as he reused it, words and all, in his opera Agrippina, which premiered in Venice the following year. [listen]

Master of the Osservanza: The Resurrection (early 1440s)

The final scene of Part One of La resurrezione is very short, comprising a recitative and an ensemble. In the recitative the Angel announces the "harrowing of hell". This is a part of Catholic doctrine which believes that the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, led by Adam and Eve, were ushered out of hell, following in Christ's footsteps, on the eve of his resurrection. This is followed by what the score describes as a "chorus" (coro in Italian). In Italian opera of the period the concluding coro of an act was sung by all the principal singers, whether or not this required them to be in or out of character. In the final coro of each part of Handel's oratorio, the five singers step out of character to sing an ensemble praising the victorious Christ. [listen]

The premiere of Handel’s La resurrezione took place on a lavishly painted stage set - but without action - in one of Ruspoli's Roman residences on Easter Day, Sunday 8 April 1708, and was repeated the following day. As opera was under a papal ban in Rome at the time, this sort of dressed up concert performance was as close as Roman music lovers could get to opera without offending the Pope.

At the premiere the cast of five singers was all male with one exception: Mary Magdalene was sung by the female soprano Margherita Durastanti. Pope Clement heard that a woman had taken part in the premiere of Handel's oratorio and expressed his disapproval, and it seems he forbade her to sing in the second performance on Easter Monday. Her part is believed to have been taken by an unknown castrato, and the parts of the Angel and Mary Cleopas were already sung by castrati. But for an event in which an extraordinary amount of documentation survives, including payments to all the instrumentalists and copyists, there is no record of payment to another singer. Durastanti was to sing for Handel again the following year in Venice in the highly successful season of Agrippina. We saw earlier that one of her arias from Part One of La resurrezione was incorporated into Agrippina, words and all. She went on to sing for Handel several times in London in 1720s and 30s.

Part One of La resurrezione took place on the Saturday night following the crucifixion. Initially bowed by grief, the mortal characters ended Part One expressing the hope that the promise that Jesus would rise again might be about to be fulfilled. The Angel, much to the annoyance of Lucifer, had ended Part One by enacting the harrowing of hell, releasing Adam and Eve and the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets from death by the power of the risen Christ.

Part Two of La resurrezione opens with a short instrumental introduction which establishes a festive mood. [listen]

The second part is divided into five scenes and in contrast to Part One, Part Two opens with one of the mortal characters, St John. It is now early on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion. In his recitative, John awaits with eagerness what the new day may bring, and describes the earth shaking before the dawn. His aria is an example of the 23 year old Handel displaying his precocious skills. Apart from the concluding ritornello, the voice is accompanied by the continuo instruments only, but the score indicates that they should all play - all the cellos and basses and chordal instruments - making a subterranean rumble as the continuo line rises from the depths to the heights. This extraordinary bassline is then seen to be a ground bass, repeated over and over as the vocal line weaves a completely independent melodic line over it. Apart from suggesting the rising of Christ, the musical line paints the words John sings: "Behold the sun which rises from the sea". John greets the dawn as the start of a new age. [listen]

John follows his aria with a short recitative in which he resolves to visit Mary, the Mother of Jesus (who, like Jesus himself, is not depicted by one of the singers). John hopes to see Mary's grief soon turned into joy.

The second scene of Part Two returns us to the immortal characters. The Angel greets the new day in a dance-like aria which proclaims the rising of Jesus from the dead. Handel's musical textures are multi-layered here, with solo oboes and violins contrasted with the full body of strings. [listen]

The dramatic contrast between the victory announced by the Angel and the defiance of Lucifer clearly inspired the librettist, Capece. The scenes he wrote for Handel to set between the two immortal characters are full of fire. Handel's music for Lucifer prevents him from being a comic bad guy, but fully the equal of the Angel whom we all know has right on his side.

The recitative which follows presents another dialogue between them. The Angel pronounces the end of hatred, cruelty, envy, impiety and other negative states. Lucifer's response to is to bemoan his undoubted defeat, but when the Angel says that Jesus will make himself known on earth before going to heaven, in order to proclaim Lucifer's defeat, Lucifer becomes defiant. He believes he can yet defeat Jesus and stop his victorious progress. [listen]

Lucifer's aria - which Handel reworked 40 years later in Joshua - shows him striding the earth in wide ranging leaps and requiring a huge vocal span. [listen]

In the following recit, the Angel mocks Lucifer and shows him how, even now, the women are hurrying to the tomb. Soon they will know Jesus is risen and Lucifer's bluster will have been in vain. In a short duet, the Angel and Lucifer stand their ground, and depart. [listen]

The third scene of Part Two sees Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleopas approaching the tomb, fearful that, as the sun has already risen, they may encounter guards on duty there.

The aria sung by Magdalene which follows shows Handel yet again aiming for new instrumental colours to depict the text. Magdalene sings that Jesus's courage gives her courage, and her initial timidity is shown in the opening duet for viola da gamba and violin. This is enhanced by the extraordinary sound of recorders and a muted oboe playing a winding chromatic line between them. The music perfectly describes the woman's fear yet determination to persevere. In the middle section of the aria, as the text speaks more of courage than fear, the key changes to the major and the whole mood is lightened with delicate interplay between the violin and the gamba (which again Handel recycled four decades later in Joshua). The opening section is then repeated in the usual da capo manner. [listen]

Lucifer has been watching these proceedings, unseen by the women of course, and is infuriated. His final appearance in the work is an anguished recit in which he admits he is beaten by the name of the power of the risen Jesus. He then resolves to flee from Heaven and from Earth and to fall yet again into the depths of Hell. Handel couldn't resist this open challenge to give the poor bass soloist the most heart-wrenching and agonising recit imaginable. The fall from Heaven to Hell is marked by a terrifying descending passage at the end which takes the singer from his highest to his lowest notes. [listen]

Thornhill: George Frideric Handel (The "Chandos" Portrait, c. 1720)

The fourth scene of Part Two sees the long-awaited interaction between the mortal and immortal worlds. Mary Cleopas starts the scene with a glorious aria, coloured by a triumphant trumpet. She sees the skies clearing with the morning light and likens this to the increasing hope which is burning in her breast. It's interesting though that even here Handel resists the temptation to make this a stock-in-trade triumph piece. Between the loud, confident musical phrases are quieter, more-tentative ones. These phrases are in turn dispelled by the confidence of the louder music, thus painting in sound the emotional state in Cleopas's heart. [listen]

Then, in the ensuing recit, Magdalene and Cleopas come to the tomb and meet the Angel, who proclaims that the tomb is empty and that Jesus has risen from the dead. The Angel then commands the women to tell the others. [listen]

The Angel's aria which follows is, apart from the final ritornello, accompanied by the continuo alone. It's a deceptively simple-sounding piece, almost dance like but in the minor key, and it’s very tricky to bring off in performance. The Angel draws the parallel between a woman - Eve - who was the conduit through which sin entered the world and these women - Magdalene and Cleopas - who will take the news of the defeat of sin into the world. [listen]

In a short recitative Magdalene responds to this amazing news by wondering where Jesus is. She is now determined to see him with her own eyes. [listen]

Magdalene's aria which follows is one of the most amazingly modern things Handel ever wrote. That he would have the courage to write such a piece in 1708 at the age of 23 staggers the mind. Sadly we have no record of the reaction of Margherita Durastanti to this unique example of 18th century aria writing.

The text paints the image of the stormy sky giving way to the beauty of the rainbow, and the joy brought by the warming of the sun after darkness and gloom. Handel's musical setting goes back and forth between two different time signatures - 3/8 and 4/4 - and the 3/8 sections are written in such a way as to make it almost impossible to determine where the barline is without the aid of the score, whilst also being harmonically indeterminate. The 3/8 sections clearly paint the uncertainty of the storm, while the rock-solid 4/4 sections paint the rainbow and the safety of the light. That Handel could have written music which points so clearly to Stravinsky is simply incredible. [listen]

In more conventional tones, Cleopas agrees that they should go and try to find Jesus. Her aria is gentler and more conventional. It calls upon the birds, brooks and flowers to join her in praising Jesus and to tell her where he is. The musical setting couldn't be simpler: the vocal sections are a single unison line with the voice and violins given the same music, and no bassline. The orchestral ritornello is in two parts, treble and bass, and the whole exudes an air of quiet confidence. [listen]

Perugino: The Resurrection (c. 1500)

The fifth and final scene of Part Two of La resurrezione starts with John meeting Cleopas and they each enquire as to what the other has seen. She tells him of the Angel's message, and he tells her that Jesus has appeared to his Mother. Capece's libretto carefully avoids any offence which might have been occasioned by having Jesus or the Virgin Mary represented as characters sung by members of the cast. Here, John tells of Jesus's appearance to his Mother and his aria sets Mary's words as he reports her joy at seeing her son. [listen]

Magdalene rushes in to tell Cleopas and John that she has seen Jesus herself. She tells the story of her encounter with a man she initially thought to be a gardener but whom she quickly understands is the risen Jesus. She says that after commanding her not to touch him, he vanished. John and Cleopas then proclaim that Jesus has risen and that their fears are gone.

The final aria in La resurrezione is given to Magdalene, a complex piece which combines opera aria with concerto grosso as solo lines for violins, oboes and gamba emerge from the full orchestral texture. The aria utilises two rhythmic ideas, one confident and march-like, the other flowing and luscious. All this serves to set the text which speaks of the rising of Jesus and the rising to new life of all people. [listen]

La resurrezione ends with a short recitative and a final ensemble which give praise to the risen Christ. The ensemble is another coro, such as we heard at the end of Part One. Here again the five singers step out of character to form a "chorus" and the work ends in joy and triumph. [listen]

To the best of my knowledge, La resurrezione has only been performed once in Australia. This was a performance I conducted in St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 2001. (I'm happy to be corrected if it has been performed by others.) The event was produced by Rod Scanlon and featured the Australian Classical Players. The cast comprised five wonderful young singers, several of whom have gone on to major national and international careers.

It's a glorious work and I hope it’s heard more frequently.

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2011.

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