Verses and curses
An angel and the devil square off in Chicago Opera Theater's
When he wrote La Resurrezione in 1709, the 24-year-old George Frideric Handel had a benevolent Roman patron who wanted a grand work for Easter Day. Handel's theatrical instincts served him well and, even at that age, he knew how to grab the public's attention: write a heart-wrenching oratorio on the single-most dramatic moment in the Bible, complete with arguments between an angel and Lucifer. Chicago Opera Theater unveils a new production of this little-known work this week at the Harris Theater, led by the experienced hands of conductor Jane Glover.
Rome in 1709 was under a papal ban on staged dramatic works, so composers had to find ways to satisfy the public's taste for spectacle without angering the clergy. In response, Handel and others such as Alessandro Scarlatti decided to write overtly religious works for concert performance. The catch was that these oratorios required a large amount of show-stopping vocal virtuosity, and La Resurrezione is no different. For all the piety and moralizing about Christ's suffering and eventual resurrection, there are plenty of vocal fireworks in the arias and ensembles.
There's no heavy-handed theology here, either. "It's glorious young Handel, like he's a colt who's been let out in the field and is jumping around. He's not bound by rules; he's breaking them," Glover says. Listening to the work, it's hard to miss the enthusiasm with which Handel composed it. Handel showed some keen theatrical instincts in pacing the oratorio, too, by writing enough yearning moments to keep it from drowning in its own sweetness.
The drama straddles the supernatural and human realms, moving between the discussions with the Angel (Sarah Coburn) and Lucifer (Derrick Parker) and the touching, fearful moments between the two Marys, Magdalene and Cleophas (Nathalie Pauline and Eudora Brown, respectively). The two sisters, who are rather slighted in the biblical narrative, are singled out here as symbols of how humanity grieved when Christ died.
After their first entrance, Mary Cleophas announces she will join her suffering to Mary Magdalene's, so as to ease the other's burden. They spur each other on, increasing the other's grief, hoping to achieve catharsis after their anguish. To a placid backdrop of strings and harpsichord, they sing a duet ("Dolci chiodi, amate spine") of their love for the dead Christ that centers on his suffering, focusing on the "sweet nails" that caused him so much pain.
Between the Earth-bound characters and Lucifer is the Angel, dramatically entering on a high A after the opening instrumental prelude. The daredevil moment falls to the excellent and fast-rising soprano Coburn, and she admits it's "a little scary. This is my first Handel opera, so it's a little intimidating to be up there with the first aria." The Angel and Lucifer then spar over who will win, and Handel stacks the deck in favor of God by making Lucifer a cardboard villain.
"He has been given kind of Polyphemus music, hasn't he?" says Glover, referring to the mythological (and notoriously beef-headed) giant in Handel's Acis and Galatea. Indeed, he has. His first recitative ("Qual'insolita luce") concludes with a hyperdramatic downward scale on "cieli" (kingdom). He's so dense he doesn't even understand that this kingdom, Heaven, should have a rising line. Later, in his aria "O voi dell'Erebo," he calls his demons out to join him in fighting the Resurrection. With his macho extended phrases on "armed" and "courage," he frightens about as much as a child's Halloween costume.
Take heed: Glover and director Lillian Groag may have a trick or two up their sleeves. "We may surprise you and he may not be such a buffoon! We may make his music rather intense," Glover says. Chicago Opera Theater is famous for keeping tight wraps on the details of its productions, so we'll have to wait and see about this directorial wrinkle.
Handel knew a good thing when he wrote it. He came back to La Resurrezione repeatedly, borrowing bits of it in Agrippina, Il pastor fido and Esther. "Some would call it plagiarism," Glover says, "He borrowed from everybody, including himself. It's sort of strange to call it borrowing, too, isn't it?" Theft may be more accurate, since Handel couldn't return composers' music back to them after he'd taken it.
La Resurrezione plays at the Harris Theater Friday 4, Sunday 6 and Thursday 10.