Historical Seasons > Past Symposiums

Handel’s “La resurrezione”

Tuesday, 24 March 2015 @ 7:28pm
Wednesday, 25 March 2015 @ 7:28pm

Handel's "La resurrezione" at Yale and the Morgan

Perhaps the most dazzling portion of Handel’s output comes from the three formative years he spent in Italy while in his early twenties. These youthful pieces are marked by bold experimentation and delight in virtuosity, and chief amongst these is “La resurrezione.” Written at a time when opera was banned in Rome, it treats sacred themes in a mythical fashion to create a spectacular drama that rivals his greatest staged works.


Program Notes by Robert Mealy

    Handel in Rome

    In January of 1707 a Roman music lover wrote in his diary:

    There has arrived in this city a Saxon, a most excellent player on the harpsichord and organ, who today gave a flourish of his skill by playing the organ in the church of S. Giovanni to the amazement of everyone present.

    This is the first recorded appearance in Italy of the young George Frideric Handel—or Giovanni Handel, as he came to be known, or simply il caro Sassone, the beloved German. He was clearly an incomparable keyboard player, and he was soon to become known for his breathtaking compositions as well. He was also only 22 years old. Handel’s stay in Rome was short—by 1710, he had left Italy altogether—but in those few years Handel had enough musical ideas to last a lifetime. What you will be hearing tonight are some of his freshest inspirations, the result of an extraordinary musical talent coming to terms with the most exciting musical developments of his day.

    Handel came to Italy fully prepared to take it by storm. He had already written and produced several works for the public opera house in Hamburg, and he could have easily settled into a career there like his friend Johann Mattheson’s, becoming Hamburg’s leading musical citizen. Fate intervened in the form of a Medici prince who happened to be passing through town. According to Handel’s earliest biographer, this aristocrat assured the young composer that “there was no country [like Italy] in which a young proficient could spend his time to so much advantage,” and insisted that Handel visit Italy as soon as possible.

    Handel arrived in Rome to find a city that was booming with culture. Shortly after his arrival the Lenten season began; as many as ten new oratorios would be presented at various churches during this period. A thriving local opera scene had come to an end when the austere Pope Innocent XII closed down the opera houses in 1697, and Carnival celebrations had been considerably muted by the effects of the War of the Spanish Succession. Nonetheless, the city had a number of extremely wealthy cardinals and princes who made their own private musical salons, or conversazione, open to the public one day a week. Thanks to the largesse of figures like Queen Maria Casimira of Poland and Prince Francesco Maria Ruspoli, and cardinals like Benedetto Pamphili and Pietro Ottoboni, music-loving Romans could hear some of the best players in Europe at least four times a week.

    These conversazione were, as the name suggests, a combination of concert, learned society, and cocktail party. One contemporary account of Cardinal Ottoboni’s soirées gives a vivid sense of these affairs:

    His Eminence keeps in his pay the best musicians and performers in Rome . . . so that every Wednesday he has an excellent concert in his palace. We were there served with ices and other delicate liquors . . . but the greatest inconveniency in all these concerts is that one is pestered with swarms of trifling little Abbés, who come thither on purpose to fill their bellies with these liquors, and to carry off the crystal bottles with the napkins into the bargain.

    At these salons Handel would have met some of the finest musicians of Europe: the great harpsichordist Bernardo Pasquini, the distinguished opera composer Alessandro Scarlatti, the composer Giovanni Bononcini (later to become Handel’s operatic rival in London), and above all Arcangelo Corelli, “the Orpheus of the violin.” Corelli’s fame had spread far and wide by this time, and doubtless he was one of the reasons Handel came to Rome. His trio sonatas were some of the best-selling pieces in Europe, going through more reprints than any music before Haydn’s.

    While Handel would have known Corelli’s publications back home in Hamburg, he would have had little sense of his achievements as a performer. Corelli was essentially inventing the orchestra, insisting upon an unheard-of level of discipline. Domenico Scarlatti later wrote about the stunning effect created by Corelli’s “nice management of his band, the uncommon accuracy of whose performance gave his concertos an amazing effect . . . Corelli regarded it as essential to the ensemble of a band, that their bows should all move exactly together, all up, or all down; so that at his rehearsals . . . he would immediately stop the band if he discovered one irregular bow.”

    The stunning effect of the Roman orchestra at the time was matched by the virtuosity of its singers. Many of the soloists Handel met here, like Margherita Durastante, would continue to work with him throughout his career. The sheer sonic brilliance of voices and instruments was something that the Church recognized as a means to overwhelm the soul with beauty; they worked on the ear just as Bernini’s sacred sculptures and architecture inspired the eye. These orchestras and choruses became themselves the focus of attention at Roman concerts, with specially made music stands and dramatically arranged seating for the orchestra. Nowhere was this more evident than in the lavish concert preparations for Handel’s greatest Roman work, La resurrezione.

    Handel and Ruspoli

    Along with the immensely wealthy Cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphili, Handel also spent much of his time in Rome writing music for one secular aristocrat. This was the Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli, a wealthy nobleman who was in the process of buying his way into a princedom: he wrote an oratorio on Saint Clement to curry favor with the current pope of the same name. Ruspoli took Handel into his household, as Cardinal Ottoboni had previously. In all of Handel’s time in Rome, he seems never to have actually been paid a fee for anything—although the pay records of the Ruspoli household indicate a truly impressive appetite for food and drink. Handel was one of the first Baroque composers (Corelli was another) to present himself in society as a gentleman rather than a tradesman, and was treated accordingly.

    During the Lenten season of 1708, Handel appears to have moved into Ruspoli’s Roman palazzo in preparation for the new work that the Marchese had commissioned for Easter Sunday that year. This new oratorio was a lavish affair. The hall on the second floor that was used for the Sunday academies had been extensively redone for the occasion, but even this was not large enough to hold the crowds that came to hear the work. After the first public rehearsal the whole production was moved downstairs to the main hall, where carpenters built a new stage that featured four rows of orchestral seats in a theatrical arrangement, each row above the one before it. Twenty-eight music stands were created with legs in the shape of fluted cornucopias, half of them painted with the Ruspoli arms and half with the arms of the marchese’s wife. In front there was a raised podium for the “Concertino de’ Violini,” Arcangelo Corelli himself, who would be featured prominently in Handel’s writing.

    Behind the orchestra the artist Angelo Cerruti painted a large backdrop featuring the characters involved in the drama. La Resurrezione, as befits its subject, is very much about the intersection of two dimensions, the human and the divine, at the moment when Christ triumphs over death. The human plane is represented by Mary Magdalene and Maria Cleophas, along with John the Evangelist, who come to visit Christ’s tomb only to find it empty. Instead they find a divine visitor, an angel who announces the Resurrection to them. In Cerruti’s painting, the other half of the story is represented by a series of demons plunging into the abyss; in Handel’s drama, the Angel and the Devil have an extended series of encounters about the meaning of the Resurrection.

    Above the proscenium arch of this stage the carpenters built a cartellone, an elaborate frontispiece with all kinds of decorations on it in red and yellow chiaroscuro. In the middle of this, on a tablet, the title of the ora- torio was spelled out in four lines, apparently as ORATORIO / PER LA RISURRETTIONE / DI Nostro SIGNOR / GESU CHRISTO. Each letter was cut out and backed with pieces of transparent paper that were illuminated from behind by 70 lights (a lighting effect carefully supervised by several carpenters’ assistants during the dress rehearsal and performances). The hall itself was lavishly decorated in yellow and red taffeta and velvet, and illuminated with 16 candelabras.

    This whole production was slated for only two performances, preceded by three rehearsals (a very generous number for the time) starting on Palm Sunday. It was standard for rehearsals to be open to guests, and indeed many Roman patrons had managed to get around the papal ban on comedies and operas by announcing their house productions as being “sotto titolo di prova,” or in the guise of rehearsals. For this production the large number of guests at both rehearsals and performances meant that around 1,500 librettos were printed for the occasion.

    One would think that nothing could be less objectionable than a sacred oratorio; nonetheless Ruspoli ran afoul of the church authorities with his production. On Easter Monday a papal admonition was issued, reprimanding Ruspoli for allowing “una Cantarina” to be involved in the production. This was no less a singer than Margherita Durastante, who was later to follow Handel to London and appear in many of his operas there. Here she was the first Maddalena, and Handel had given her the hit tune of the oratorio: “Ho un non so che bel core,” a pop song that was itself a tribute to one of Corelli’s violin sonatas. Durastante was quickly replaced for the second performance on Easter Monday by a castrato, but Handel made good use of her and of this hit tune by having her sing it in the title role of his Venetian opera Agrippina one year later.

    For the orchestra, Ruspoli drew upon a huge number of Roman musicians. Between the instrumentalists hired specially for the occasion and Ruspoli’s own household musicians, the band featured something like 23 violins, 6 cellos, 6 double basses, 4 oboes (who doubled on recorder and flute) and—oddly—a bass trombone, which doesn’t appear in Handel’s score but may have doubled bass lines in some of the larger pieces. The pay records give no mention of one of the more remarkable instrumental voices in the work, a viola da gamba that is employed in elaborate duets with the principal violin. Scholars have suggested that this was probably the German composer and viol player Ernst Christian Hesse, a friend of Handel’s who was traveling through Italy at exactly this time; apparently he received a gold ring set with rubies and diamonds for his labors.

    The Sacred Drama

    Carlo Capece’s text is divided, as was customary, into two parts. Traditionally the two halves of an oratorio would be separated by an extensive sermon. For the Roman aristocrats an intermission was provided instead. During this interlude they could enjoy liqueurs, sorbets, pastries, and coffee in the adjoining salon, which was decorated with a waterfall installed especially for the occasion. Part I of the oratorio begins with a tremendous sinfonia that Handel adapted from his oratorio of the previous year, Il trionfo del tempo, now enriched with trumpet parts. This ushers in the opening aria, where the Angel (a castrato in the original performance) demands that the gates of Hell be cast down, in a tremendous bravura number beginning on a high A. Lucifer, at the opposite end of the vocal spectrum, summons the powers of Hell in response. Meanwhile, on the human plane, Mary Cleophas and Mary Magdalene mourn the death of Jesus, while St. John reassures them with Christ’s promise to return to life on the third day. The first half ends with the Harrowing of Hell, as the Angel calls on all the blessed souls to be released, and to celebrate Christ’s victory over death.

    After the obligatory sorbets and liqueurs, the second part begins with another sinfonia repurposed from Trionfo, after which St. John sings a sublime aria on Christ as the new dawn; he goes to find the Virgin Mary in hopes of news. The scene shifts to the argument between the Angel and Lucifer, and then to Mary Cleophas and Mary Magdalene as they make their way to Jesus’ tomb, hoping they are not too late. Lucifer, realizing he has been conquered, flees back to the depths of Hell. The angel appears to the two Marys and explains that Christ has risen, and urges them to spread the good news. Mary Cleophas leaves and meets St. John, who tells her that Christ has already appeared to his mother. Mary Magdalene meets them, and announces that Jesus has now appeared to her as well. She then calls on everyone to celebrate the Resurrection, and the work ends in a general chorus of rejoicing.

    Notes by Robert Mealy