Having reported earlier this weekend on a concert of mostly Roman Baroque music performed at Cambridge’s First Church Congregational, I returned there Sunday afternoon to hear more of the same, albeit by a considerably better-known composer. Cambridge Concentus, directed by guest conductor Kevin Mallon, offered Handel’s second oratorio, La Resurrezione. First performed at Rome on Easter 1708 during the composer’s Italian period, this is a splendid work, if today impossible to produce in anything like its original state. We are taught that oratorios are un-staged sacred dramas, but in fact this work was musically an opera in all but name, originally performed on a special stage with painted scenery in what is now the Palazzo Valentini.
Unlike Handel’s more familiar English oratorios, composed 30 and more years later after his move to London, this has an Italian text. There is no chorus, and the librettist Capece treats Mary Magdalen, St. John the Evangelist, and even Satan (Lucifer) in the manner that was standard for Italian opera circa 1700: that is, alternating between dialogs in recitative and speechifying in the form of virtuoso arias.
Some of the music will be familiar even to those who have never heard the work, for in later years Handel drew on this, as on his other early compositions, for tunes and sometimes whole movements. Thus the closing ensemble at the end of the first half sounds like a mash-up of the bourrée from the Water Music and the chorus “For unto us a child is born” from Messiah. But in later incarnations of the music Handel toned down its most virtuoso features, particularly the spectacular writing for the tenor who sings Lucifer. And only in select scenes of his later operas and oratorios did Handel so frequently provide solo parts for recorder, viola da gamba, and cello. These give the work a special color that, together with the abundant exuberance and freshness of the youthful Handel’s early Italianate writing, should make any modern performance a treat.
Alas, with two of the five soloists unable to sing due to illness, and only one of them replaced, what we heard was a severely truncated performance of Handel’s work, and it would be unfair to say much more of it. Baritone Jacob Cooper was a stylish St. John, tenor Jason McStoots an appropriately histrionic Lucifer, and Emily Marvosh’s rich alto voice brought moments of great beauty to the part of Mary Cleophas. Anney Barrett, with a lovely clear soprano, sang at time charmingly as a last-minute substitute in the part of Mary Magdalen, but Brenna Wells was forced to retire from the central and critical role of the unnamed Angel.
The orchestra is at least an equal of the voices in this work. Cambridge Concentus, although too small and lacking some of the instruments called for by Handel’s score—no lute, no second cello, and far fewer than the original 40 or so players—acquitted itself very well. I was particularly impressed by Zoe Weiss’s performance of the extraordinary viola da gamba part, particularly in the accompaniment during one aria of the sweetly lyrical recorder players Andrea LeBlanc and Kristin Olson (who doubled in other movements on flute and oboe, respectively). Concertmaster Marika Holmqvist, playing a part originally written for Corelli, handled her solos very deftly as well, and cellist Katie Rietman and keyboardist Leon Schelhase furnished a more-than-dependable continuo.
Conductor Kevin Mallon, whose elegant commentary mingled with apologies in spoken remarks before both halves of the work, made the best of what he described modestly as an “unusual” circumstance. One can only hope that he will return soon to Boston in a performance that will more adequately reveal why those who are familiar with his recordings of Baroque theatrical classics are so enthusiastic about them.