Opera Atelier is back or should we say resurrected after several years’ enforced sojourn in the Elysian Fields where good people are sent to rest. It has produced George Frederick Handel’s’ oratorio The Resurrection to coincide with the celebration of Easter and it is a vocal and visual delight.
The Resurrection was Handel’s first sacred oratorio and he composed it while in Rome to a libretto by Carlo Capece. He was 23 years old. It was performed fittingly enough on Easter Sunday and Monday in 1708 but not in a church. Even more fittingly perhaps it was performed in the palace of a Marquess and, worse, the role of Mary Magdalen was sung by a female soprano. Both aspects spoke of the theatricality of the piece but, women were not permitted to sing on the stage in Rome at the time and perhaps out of an abundance of caution she was replaced by a castrato for the second performance.
Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, the Co-artistic Directors of Opera Atelier have given us a beautifully sung and finely staged production of the oratorio at the well-appointed Koerner Hall, Toronto. for only three perfectly timed performances: Holy Thursday and Saturday and Easter Sunday.
The resurrection tells the story of the events after Christ’s crucifixion, in other words on Saturday after His burial while He is in the tomb and on Easter Sunday when he rises from the dead. The oratorio consists of confrontations, lamentations and celebrations. The confrontations are with the evil Lucifer (bass Douglas Williams) who is celebrating his victory over the death of Christ but the Angel (Carla Huhtanen) fights back. Mary Magdalen (soprano Meghan Lindsay) and Mary Cleophas (mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy) mourn the death of the Lord but are comforted by Saint John (tenor Colin Ainsworth) who assures them that Christ will rise.
The oratorio ends of course with the discovery of the empty tomb by the two Marys and the celebration of the triumph of our Lord over death and over Lucifer.
With Choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and the Atelier Ballet present, we are guaranteed liberal but judicious and gorgeous use of dancing. The twelve dancers (including Jeannette) form the army of Angels who confront Lucifer and demand that the gates of Avernus (Hades or Hell) be opened to let the radiance of God dispel the stygian darkness. The dancers appear regularly throughout the production, adding colour and variety. Splendid choreography and dancing.
The set consists of two large and ostentatious bronze stands or lecterns on each side of the stage and two staircases leading to an apex. That is where the Angel will be seen. Centre stage there is a curtained off area where we will see the body of the buried Christ and later the empty one. Set Designer Gerard Gauci has done a brilliant job and he may have received inspiration from the set in the original production in the palazzo which is reputed to have been lavish.
Soprano Carla Huhtanen sings the fearless Angel that stands up to the bombastic Lucifer. Dressed in white with a gold tiara, Huhtanen sings beautifully and defends the glory of the Lord with vigour.
Bass Douglas Williams has the juicy role of the pompous and blustering Lucifer. With unruly hair and wearing a black t-shirt, he runs and struts around the stage thinking that he is victorious because Jesus is dead and buried and he is the boss.
Much of the oratorio is taken up with the lamentations of Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleophas. The lineage of the latter is disputable but I choose to believe that she was the wife of the brother of Joseph, the Virgin’s husband. That makes Mary Cleophas Christ’s aunt and the mother of Christ’s alleged “brothers” leaving his mother Mary a virgin. In the libretto Mary Cleophas is referred to simply as Cleophas.
But I digress. Soprano Megan Lindsay and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy had the the toughest roles and had to sing the emotionally-draining lamentations. There can be no greater depth of grief than for the torture and death of the Saviour. They recall that even while on the cross when He asked for a drink He was given vinegar. It was that type of emotional level that the two singers had to express and they did. Lindsay has a superb, expressive voice. McHardy has a rich mezzo instrument that is capable of some marvelously low notes.
The two-dozen players of the Tafelmusik Orchestra were conducted by David Fallis and they played Handel’s music superbly.
The Resurrection George Frederick Handel was performed three times on April 6 -9 2023 at Koerner Hall in the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning 273 Bloor Street West, Toronto.