Handel’s sacred oratorio La resurrezione premiered in Rome in 1708, immediately causing a stir, for the lead singer performing the role of Mary Magdalene had the audacity to be a woman. Papal laws of the time forbade women from performing, and so the soprano was promptly replaced by a castrato. Luckily for the audience of the Berlin Philharmonic, women are allowed to sing in public now, and the three taking part in the performance were in no danger of a papal tongue-lashing. Led by Emmanuelle Haïm, Christiane Karg, Camilla Tilling and Sonia Prina were joined by Topi Lehtipuu and Christopher Purves in a fine performance of La resurrezione at the Berlin Philharmonic.

As an oratorio, La resurrezione is driven by 29 interspersed recitatives and arias, which serve to drive the action forward and denote the characters’ feelings. The events take place between Good Friday and the Easter Sunday and include a victorious angel, a vengeful Lucifer, and assorted saints. In the role of the Angel, Camilla Tilling sang with a bright, if somewhat histrionic soprano. Her opening aria, “Disserratevi, o porta d’Averno”, contains notoriously difficult coloratura, which seemed to overwhelm Tilling. In the beginning, she was overwhelmed by the orchestra, but by the end of the aria she was on track and went on to perform with great energy. Her bright soprano was an excellent match for Christopher Purves’ gravelly bass. In the role of Lucifer, Purves sang with dangerous elegance and a measure of outrage, incensed that the gates of hell were being thrown open for the Son of God.

Christiane Karg sang an excellent Magdalena. Her voice is meaty and golden, but not too heavy for this repertoire, and the grace and faith of her character were obvious throughout. Her most exciting moment was the aria “Notte, note funesta…Ferma l’ali”, when Magdalena laments the darkness of the night and the tears she has shed. Karg sang with palpable grief and real beauty. As Cleophas, Sonia Prina owned the evening. Her alto is solid and versatile, and she maintained such good control that the coloratura in her arias never once sounded forced or unwieldy. Cleophas’ aria “Piangete, si, piangete” contains several difficult coloratura runs, but they were sung by a woman in total control of her instrument. Her arias were thrilling to hear.

As John the Evangelist, Topi Lehtipuu made a less successful performance. Though he was in fine voice, Lehtipuu never varied his emotion, painting a monotone picture. His Evangelist was a faithful apostle waiting for his resurrected Lord, but there was no emotional variation in his performance, no dramatic changes in tone. It was a capable performance, but lacked characterization.

The Berlin Philharmonic, outfitted by a handful of members of the Concert d’Astree, was led by Emmanuelle Haïm, who also performed on the harpsichord. There was an interesting mix of modern and period instruments in the ensemble. The strings were modern, and so tended to drown out the period woodwinds and lutes. The resulting sound was curiously timeless. The playing was exceptional, a testament to the players’ dedication to their work. Haïm’s conducting was energetic but careful: this is a conductor to whom the Baroque is as familiar as her own hands. That familiarity allowed orchestra members and singers alike to be led in making beautiful music. It was a fine evening.