double play

Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on... Handel: La Resurrezione Soloists Les Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski (DG Archiv 447 767-2; two CDs)
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The Independent Culture
A sprightly fugue launched in rustic oboes betokens an 18th-century spring. Earthly delights, Italian style. But, at a stroke, Arcadia is vanished. A dramatic and wholly unexpected modulation plunges us into Stygian gloom. The gates of Hell. But "what unexpected light rends the bonds of Tartarean night?" Sound the trumpets, and enter an Angel, showering coloratura like celestial stardust. If we had any doubts before, there can be none now. The audacity, the sheer theatricality of the vocal writing has Handel written all over it. The big surprise is that this isn't mature but fledgling Handel. An impatient 23-year-old on only his second foray into the highly exacting genre of oratorio. That's opera by any other name, of course. But in Rome, circa 1707, a papal ban forbade the performance of opera.

Actually, Handel's uninhibited attitude to the genre is what gives La Resurrezione its vitality - though quite what the papacy can have made of this fanciful slant on the resurrection story (Lucifer and Christ in last-ditch bid for Heaven's occupancy) is anybody's guess. Handel makes few concessions to the absence of stage action. Rather, he and his librettist Carlo Sigismondo Capece unlock the imagination to work overtime on the dramaturgy. Arias, not stage machinery. And that's the single most amazing thing about this piece - the mastery of technique in the arias. That and Handel's youthful bravado. The Angel's first aria, dazzlingly sung here by the young French soprano Annick Massis (undoubtedly the star of the show), is right on the cusp of what is realistically possible. Lucifer (Laurent Naouri - a bit of a huffer and puffer) gets taken down to a belching low D-flat. Emotions flare, spirits rise and fall through the widest vocal compass, the characterisation both creative and daring. And, oratorio or not, Handel arias were born seductive.

Numbers like the Angel's "D'amor fu consiglio" or San Giovanni's "Caro Figlio!" - a tender John Mark Ainsley with Bachian cello obbligato and a postlude of aching harmonic suspensions - are up there with the best of mature Handel. Maddalena's "Ferma l'ali, e sui miei lumi", while none too secure in Jennifer Smith's rather grey voice, is none the less a tiny miracle of invention, night's folding wings invoked over a sighing pedal bass with sweet, consoling harmonies from strings and recorders. The instrumental colours, as realised in this smashing performance from Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre, are telling and resourceful, the simple addition of recorders here, an organ there, or the gentle strumming of theorbo (subtly transporting us into the realms of song) effortlessly establishing changes of mood, time and place. But, best of all, the freshness and fizz and, yes, theatrical rudeness of Handel's youthful fancy are infectiously conveyed. Everybody gets stuck in. Sacred and profane. ES

Handel, the resurrection story - does the combination suggest earnest, solid Georgian piety? Then be prepared for a wonderful surprise. This is the young Handel, boldly serving up lavish, robust Italian opera disguised as oratorio for a Roman audience - the Papal ban on operatic works seems to have applied only to the letter, not the spirit. The dancing oboe figures that open the overture are almost cheeky, or at least they are in this vibrant concert performance. I don't know whether Marc Minkowski especially enjoys the idea of Handel as subversive, but that's certainly the effect. It continues in this vein when the voices enter: Annick Massis's Angel delivering her cascading scales and roulades as though the Son of God's defeat of death was just the most glorious romp. Her altercations with an indignant Lucifer (Laurent Naouri) come close to pantomime, especially when the latter threatens to do his worst ("I'll throw Hell into confusion, I'll convulse the Earth from within...") - terrific singing, and the same goes for the playing in Handel's rushing fire-and-brimstone string-writing. I can just imagine the boos and hisses.

Unlike many "live" recordings, this one seems to have been made at a single concert performance. There are disadvantages: Jennifer Smith takes a while to focus her voice in her first aria - Mary Magdalene's sumptuous "Ferma l'ali, e sui miei lumi" ("Fold thy wings and o'er my eyes"). But, on the whole, the dramatic impetus and expressive intensity are outstanding - this of all Handel's oratorios can least afford to be studio-bound. Apart from the singing, this recording is a potent vindication of period instruments in baroque music. Take St John's aria "Caro Figlio!" ("Dear Son"): John Mark Ainsley sings movingly, with noble restraint; but then, finally, in come the strings, and the expression flowers breathtakingly. If you can resist this, you must have a heart of lead. SJ