La Resurrezione deserves more frequent hearings… our Easter is so dominated by the harrowing story of the crucifixion that performances of a work that celebrates the risen Christ with such magnificence will make such a welcome change,” wrote the respected Handel scholar Anthony Hicks back in 1969, when the work was hardly known in this country. Fifty odd years on, Handel’s youthful and flamboyant oratorio from his Rome days has established its position as an early masterpiece, with many excellent recordings, yet it hasn’t quite become an Easter favourite. 

Rachel Redmond and the London Handel Orchestra and Laurence Cummings
© Ben McKee

So it felt very special that the London Handel Festival, holding its first full festival in three years, was performing the work on Easter Monday in the suitably Baroque setting of St Martin-in-the-Fields with its warm acoustics. Marking the finale of the LHF, the concert also formed part of the Easter Festival at the venue. It was wonderful to see a full audience crammed into the wooden pews and there was a sense of anticipation in the air.

La Resurrezione is a joyful, uplifting oratorio composed by the energetic 23-year old Handel in Rome, where it was given a lavish performance at Marchese Ruspoli’s Palazzo on Easter Sunday in 1708. The text operates on two dramatic levels: the confrontation between the Angel and Lucifer on one level, and on the other, events on Earth by Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas and St John.

Radiant-voiced Rachel Redmond impressed in the Angel’s striking opening aria, which was sung with effortless ease and confidence from a raised stage behind of the orchestra, and her recitatives with Lucifer were also delivered with clarity and dramatic tension. Handel’s musical portrayal of Lucifer can feel a caricature, but here deep-voiced Callum Thorpe presented him largely as a serious character; his aria “O voi dell’Erebo”, a fierce depiction of hell, was sung with powerful and resonant tone.

The two Marys not only had contrasting voices but were also contrasting in character. Nardus Williams was a gentle and pious Mary Magdalene, if a little subdued in her first aria “Ferma l’ali”, but the Part 2 aria “Per me già di morire”, at the emotional heart of the work, was movingly sung with quiet fortitude. Meanwhile Helen Charlston (winner of the 2018 Handel Singing Competition) has a distinct, dignified mezzo voice, beautifully projected. She displayed agility in “Naufragando va per l’onde”, a typical Baroque aria depicting the raging sea in a storm, while bringing out the contrast with the calm middle section accompanied by the theorbo alone. Supporting the two Marys, the role of St John was sung by Ed Lyon with eloquence and lyricism in both the recitatives and arias – in particular, he captured the simple beauty and poignancy of “Caro figlio”, a meditative aria portraying Mary seeing her son Jesus after the resurrection.

When Handel composed this work, he had all the instrumental resources he could wish for – including oboes, recorders, trumpets and a trombone – and his orchestral writing is brilliant and more varied than some of his later operas and oratorios. The exquisite solo passages for the violin (Adrian Butterfield) and viola da gamba (Mark Caudle) – often elaborately combined – were delightfully played. The London Handel Orchestra may not be the cutting-edge period ensemble, but they are a congenial group of dedicated musicians, wholly at ease with Handel’s language, and directed with unfailing passion and enthusiasm from the harpsichord (forming part of the lively continuo section) by Laurence Cummings, you couldn't not be seduced by Handel’s youthful and joyful music.

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