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Rome: Handel's Resurrezione

Rome: Handel's Resurrezione

Event is Past

Event is Past

Program Notes

The Dear Saxon in Rome

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was born in Halle, a modest-sized city southwest of Berlin. Nominally a Prussian by political geography, Handel always considered himself a Saxon, and it was by this nickname – Il caro Sassone – that he was often referenced by friends and admirers during his years outside German lands. Halle had seen better days by 1685, though for Handel it provided initial opportunities for music instruction and employment, already beginning before his 10th birthday. Additionally, he would enroll for a short time at the university in Halle, founded only in 1694. While a student he maintained a position as church organist and began seriously to cultivate his own compositions and a growing network of musical connections, including friendships with Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Mattheson. By the time Handel turned 18, it had become painfully clear that his talents would moulder in Halle’s provincial atmosphere. Passing up an offer from the royal court in Berlin – likely because Prussia maintained stricter control over its servants – Handel instead settled as a free artist in Hamburg in July 1703.

Hamburg, the principal North German port, offered a rich, cosmopolitan experience to young Handel. Significantly, the Hamburg Opera pulled together vocal elements from Protestant cantata traditions and imported aria-recitative and instrumental color from south of the Alps. From playing back-desk violin in the opera orchestra, the not-so-humble teenager soon asserted greater authority over musicians much his senior in years. He often took over musical direction from the keyboard, and within a short time was ready to bring forth his own works, starting with Almira and Nero in early 1705. These operas suggested great things to come, but Hamburg sadly was not able to retain Handel’s services. Political infighting at the opera and an uncertain line of succession to the top job once again fueled Handel’s desire to seek another home.

Around this time Handel met a Tuscan prince visiting Hamburg, Gian Gastone de’ Medici. The two developed a fast friendship over shared musical interests. Medici praised the artistic riches of his native Florence and Italy in general, though Handel put little stock by such effusiveness. However, he had been tantalized for some years by the prospect of a musical grand tour to Italy. Swayed by the prince’s warm invitation, Handel crossed the Alps in 1706 to arrive in the home of the Renaissance. Drawing on meager evidence, we believe that he moved around a bit at first, including stops in Florence and Venice. But by January 1707 he had settled in Rome, where he would produce a series of masterful and mature works for both sacred and secular occasions.

The Eternal City offered a composer numerous outlets for creativity: the spiritual center of the Western Christian world, home of the Pope, it also fostered a centuries-old tradition of secular musical academies supported by private wealth and boasting most of the city’s most exceptional performers. Those competing realms actually supported diverging artistic trends. The pope had placed a ban on opera in 1698, and it was not lifted until after Handel’s departure from the region. Thus musicians seeking significant support from religious figures, including many wealthy cardinals, would need to cultivate traditional sacred genres. Handel made his contribution by virtue of a brilliant Dixit Dominus and various psalm settings, all completed in 1707. At the same time, more ostentatious and dramatically engaging fare was to be found in the secular cantatas, which offered essentially an operatic manner on a reduced scale. Most cantatas include only a handful of alternating recitative-aria pairings. Having heard and written so many works in this minor genre, Handel was keen to try his hand at something more ambitious.

Marquis Francesco Ruspoli (1672-1731), scion of a leading Italian family, hosted a thriving musical establishment at his residences in and around Rome. He founded the Accademia degli Arcadi in 1690 and counted cardinals, dukes, princes, poets and philosophers among its members, not to mention musicians like Alessandro Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli. Scarlatti was a leading voice in Italian vocal style, while Corelli enjoyed fame as arguably the finest violinist in Europe. Both were influential on Handel as he took the opportunity to compose an opera for Ruspoli’s academy in early 1708. The theme would be the Biblical Resurrection story, premiered on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1708.

The papal ban on opera still in effect, this work could not publicly be performed, so it was offered to a select audience at Ruspoli’s Roman palace. Moreover, lavish spectacle and staging was expected to be left out or marginalized. However, Ruspoli took two risks to ensure a spectacular premiere. First, the opening performance utilized stage movement, costumes, and dramatic lighting, as well as scenery and props. Second, and more controversially, Ruspoli engaged soprano Margherita Durastanti to sing the role of Mary Magdalene even though the Pope’s edict forbade women from public musical performance. His knuckles roundly rapped, Ruspoli replaced her with a male castrato (which was somehow more palatable for the church authorities?) for the second performance the next day.

The text for La Resurrezione was penned by Carlo Sigismondo Capece (1652-1728), court poet to the exiled Polish Queen Maria Casimira. We know very little about Capece today, though he did offer excellent librettos to operas by Domenico Scarlatti and Antonio Caldara. Capece dramatizes the Resurrection story through the interactions between five characters. Two of the three Marys traditionally referred to as being present at the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas, are joined here by another historical figure, John the Evangelist. The cast also features two sumptuous, supernatural roles for soprano (the Angel) and bass (Lucifer), whose operatic duel opens the vocal action. As in the Biblical Resurrection story itself, so it is in Handel’s oratorio: the one figure who is both omnipresent and yet nowhere to be found is Jesus.

Synopsis of La Resurrezione

Part One

A brilliant instrumental Sonata opens the work, presaging the virtuosic style of the Angel’s coloratura evocation of God’s divine power: Disserratevi, o porte d’Averno / Unlock yourselves, O gates of Avernus. (Avernus, interestingly enough, is a volcanic crater southeast of Rome that provided the mythical entrance to Hades.) Her message is heard and rebuffed by the strident voice of Lucifer, who relates his ignominious fall from grace (Caddi, è ver / I fell, it’s true) but yet claims vengeance upon the Deity via Christ’s death. Their conflict unfolds over successive recitatives and arias, capped by the Angel’s paean to love (D’amor fu consiglio / The counsel of love) and Lucifer’s militant call to arms (O voi dell’Erebo / Oh you dread powers of Erebus).

The scene shifts to night of the day after Good Friday as Mary Magdalene pours forth her tender lamentation (Ferma l’ali / Still your wings). Mary of Clopas tries to ease Magdalene’s suffering but ultimately commiserates with her own dolorous aria (Piangete, sì, piangete / Weep, yes, weep). Together they rant at the cruel onlookers who mocked Christ’s thirst but progress to each utter a version of a critical Christian ethos: “If my desire seeks to soothe itself in afflicted thoughts, I find in my breast some of the martyrdom of my pierced Jesus” (Magdalene). This sentiment, a desire to share in Christ’s anguish, carries over into their duet (Dolci chiodi, amate spine / Sweet nails, beloved thorns).

The drama’s final character, John the Evangelist, at last enters to provide hope of a brighter morrow. In his recitative and aria (Quando parto dell’affetto / When grief arises from affection) John reminds the Marys that the Son of God was prophesied to return again on the third day. Already “dawn is breaking upon the waters of the Ganges” on this day of days. With faith, “hope never yields to fear.” Buoyed by John’s words, the women decide to be at Christ’s tomb before the sun rises. Their journey, depicted in tones redolent of the brilliant style from Resurrezione’s opening numbers, provides further allegorical development of the character’s spiritual progress. As sung by Mary of Clopas (Naufragando va per l’onde / Nearly wrecked by the waves), the sailor tossed upon stormy waters finds hope restored upon catching the first sight of land (i.e., Christ, the Rock and the Redeemer).

Before they part, John sings a beautiful homage to the third Mary, mother of Jesus, whose grief is without measure (Così la tortorella / Thus the turtledove weeps). Mary Magdalene still wavers between hope and fear (Ho un non so che nel cor / I have an unknown feeling in my heart). Having silently observed all of the action, the Angel steps forward to cement their burgeoning hope for Christ’s resurrection. Her lengthy recitative, “Come out, then, from that dark prison,” culminates in a choral finale to the first part. All five principals, including Lucifer’s musically essentially bass, intone the valedictory strains of “Il Nume vincitor trionfi, regni e viva! / May the victorious Lord triumph, reign and live!”

Part Two

The oratorio’s second part opens with a lively, binary-form instrumental sinfonia. John’s voice calls out in recitative and aria, celebrating the arrival of the third day, Easter Sunday, and the promise of Christ’s return from death (Ecco il sol / Here is the sun). Long ascending lines in the bass overtly portray the rising sun. As in the first part, the bulk of the early action now goes to an exchange between the Angel, soaring in radiant tones (Risorga il mondo / Let the world rise again), and Lucifer, who cannot believe his triumph over God has been reversed by the Resurrection. His defiance gains new energy in the fitful aria Per celare il nuovo scorno / To hide this new scorn. Their musical and spiritual contest culminates with an extremely brief duet, begun by Lucifer (Impedirlo saprò / I can prevent this).

Delayed by that morning’s earthquake – indicative of divine power – Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas now arrive at the tomb, fretting that day is advancing and the tomb’s guards will already be awake. In one of the most striking musical sections, Magdalene dwells on the idea of fear. Built as a conventional da capo ABA structure, the musical contrasts are so striking that the end result feels more like two separate arias. In the opening section, a sharply chromatic Adagio in B minor, Mary marvels at Jesus’s lack of fear in the face of death (Per me già di morire / Jesus did not fear dying for me). The ensuing lyrical, supple song in D major voices Mary’s own power to conquer fear through His love (Egli mi dà l’ardire / He gives me courage).

We hear a final recitative from Lucifer (Ahi, aborrito nome / Alas, abhorred name), accepting his defeat and second fall, the latter symbolically sounded out by a vocal drop across two octaves to the pit of the bass register. His departure marks the resurgence of celebratory music, begun with Clopas’s radiant aria Vedo il ciel / See how the sky. Approaching the tomb, the women see an angelic youth clad in white, resting by the open vault. The Angel informs them of Christ’s Resurrection and calls upon them to be the first bearers of the good news and thus possibly atone for the sins of the original woman, Eve (Se per colpa di donna / If by woman’s guilt).

As the work reaches its final stage, Mary pauses to admit her desire to yet see Jesus in the flesh. But she relishes even the search (Del ciglio dolente / From the grieving sky) for Him, a sentiment echoed by Clopas’s curious, largely a capella aria (Augelletti, ruscelletti / Little birds, little streams). Meanwhile, John enters to relate that Jesus appeared to his mother, who wept with joy and sings forth her emotion (Caro figlio / Dear Son). Magdalene reports that she has seen Jesus in the humble, yet radiant guise of a gardener, further proof of His defeat of death (Se impassibile, immortale / If you are untouchable and immortal). The final chorus (Diasi lode in cielo / Let there be praise in heaven) draws all five principal voices back together for musical rather than dramatic reasons; the Angel’s work has been completed, Lucifer is soundly defeated, and the continuing labor falls to men and women in service of a transcendent idea.

© Jason Stell, 2024

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