Cecil B DeMille found he could slip anything by the censors if put in a religious setting. When, in the first decade of the 18th century, Rome found itself bereft of opera, thanks to reasons puritanical and political, composers discovered they could put one over on the pope by slipping opera into oratorio. During his nearly three-year stint in Rome, Handel followed the local custom and produced two oratorios in this operatic vein. The second, 1708’s Easter oratorio, La Resurrezione, anchored the Boston Early Music Festival’s Thursday programs in a dramatic reading by many of the same forces performing Campra’s La Carnaval de Venise.

Handel's <i>La Resurrezione</i> © Kathy Wittman
Handel's La Resurrezione
© Kathy Wittman

Commissioned by Marchese Ruspoli and performed in his palace on Easter and Easter Monday. La Resurrezione encompasses the time from Good Friday evening to Easter Sunday morning and the intense emotions felt by two witnesses, Mary Magdalene (Maddalena) and Mary Cleophas (Cleofe). Their earthly drama apposes a supernatural one between the Archangel Michael (Angelo) and Lucifer (Lucifero), including the Harrowing of Hell which closes the first part. St John the Evangelist (Giovanni) mediates between the two worlds. Carlo Capece’s text, written expressly for Handel, is unique in making the female perspective the central one. And, while the metaphor of Christ as lover and bridegroom is perfectly acceptable theologically, having Mary Magdalene speak of Jesus in those terms adds a definite carnal charge to such imagery. The fact that Margherita Durastante sang the part and in violation of a papal ban on women performing likely added to the frisson (Clement XI became aware of Ruspoli and Handel’s gambit; a castrato took her place for the second performance).

Handel enjoyed access to virtuoso singers plus Arcangelo Corelli and his large and highly disciplined orchestra for both his Roman oratorio commissions. This allowed the 22 year-old to give his imagination free rein and exploit the orchestra’s expressive potential to create color, mood and character. Volleys of trumpets and trombones herald the Archangel’s opening assault on the Gates of Hell then underpin Lucifer’s bombast. A muted oboe casts an eerie, otherworldly aura over the scene at the tomb. Corelli’s 22 violins are divided in three and four for dramatic effect and to contrast Lucifer’s unison accompaniment. And the winds are held in reserve for the introduction to Maddalena’s first recitative, becoming the characteristic sound and color for all the human episodes. Handel also mined the previous year’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno for La Resurrrezione’s two sinfonie  and even included some music previously written for Ruspoli, all likely at his patron’s behest since he never reused music in the same place where it was first performed.

Stephen Stubbs conducted 33 members of the BEMF Orchestra from the harpsichord in a dynamic, red-blooded performance which brought the drama to the fore and bolstered his singers, who function like a repertory company during the festival. It’s a treat to hear singers outstanding in comic roles in the Campra, given the opportunity to shine in a different light in a different role or a lead to take on another equally important character. Even if her opening salvo of runs is smudged and unsettled, when Archangel Gauvin comes knocking at your door, devil or not, you open! By the time she reached her second aria, “D’amor fu consiglio” her voice had settled more, but she really didn’t sound completely herself until tafter intermission. Teresa Wakim initially suffered similarly but recovered quickly, a godsend since Maddalena has some of the best music in the oratorio: “Ho un non so che nel cor”, later plugged into Agrippina and “Per me già di morire”. Christian Immler so entertaining as another blustering lord of the Underworld, Pluto, fully deployed his dense, mahogany bass for Lucifer, effortless filling Jordan Hall with its dark resonance. The snaky chromaticism and intervals of “Caddi è ver” presented no pitfalls. If Aaron Sheehan’s primping, narcissistic Italian tenor in the Orfeo parody were your only encounter with his voice, then you would have been picking your jaw off the floor at his Giovanni, a fluid stream of shining tone, sparkling runs, and accurate ornamentation.

More of a treat is to hear a remarkable voice for the first time. Kelsey Lauritano, a Juilliard graduate student making her BEMF debut as Cleofe, has a mezzo soprano so unique that it almost defies description. It’s like a single malt – smoky, rich, layered, and complex. Her lower range is unusually solid and rounded, with no loss of volume as it descends and her timbre is a singular mix of the masculine and feminine. Wed all that to a winning presence and a solid technique and you have a singer to watch and to welcome back.