One of the most important works of Handel’s Italian period, La Resurrezione was first performed privately, on Easter Day in 1708, in the house of one of the composer’s Roman patrons. It’s a remarkable piece in some ways. The subject in itself is unusual: depictions of the resurrection are comparatively rare in music, as indeed they are in art, almost as if approaching the central mystery of Christianity were in some ways at the limits of human imagination.
Handel’s treatment is oblique, albeit striking. A supernatural colloquy between Lucifer and an Angel describes the harrowing of hell, while on Earth, saints John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleophas anxiously await the dawn that will reveal Christ’s tomb to be empty. As so often in Handel, however, there is an underlying sense of God’s glory reflected in the physical wonder of creation, and the textual equation of Christ with the sun paves the way for an astonishingly beautiful depiction of natural renewal after the harshness of winter.
The resulting sensuous immediacy very much predominated in Easter Monday’s performance by the London Handel Orchestra under Laurence Cummings, part of both the London Handel festival and the Easter festival at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Cummings proved an exacting judge of the sometimes tricky balance between drama and reflection, teasing out instrumental detail as he went – the woodwind that alternately grieve and console, the warmth in the strings, the gleam in the brass that eventually heralds the triumph of light over darkness.
There was some wonderful singing, too. Nardus Williams sounded ravishing as Mary Magdalene, her rapt introspection contrasted with the bravura brilliance of Helen Charlston’s Mary Cleophas. Rachel Redmond’s Angel showered Callum Thorpe’s sullen, gritty-voiced Lucifer with volleys of gleefully precise coloratura. And as John the Evangelist, Ed Lyon sang with burnished tone and deep sincerity, bringing an ecstatic quality to Ecco Il Sol Ch’Esce Dal Mare that arguably made it the emotional high point of a fine and rewarding evening.