Haymarket Opera triumphs with exciting account of Handel’s “Resurrezione”

Sat Jun 15, 2024 at 1:47 pm

By John von Rhein

Jonathan Woody was among the cast in Haymarket Opera’s performance of Handel’s La Resurrezione, conducted by Christian Curnyn Friday night. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Haymarket Opera Company has been on a Handelian roll since its debut season in 2011, when it ventured the serenade Aci, Galatea et Polifemo. Since then, Chicago’s exemplar of period stage performance fidelity has racked up no fewer than seven more productions of works by George Frideric Handel. 

Haymarket’s latest, and strongest, Handelian foray arrived on Friday night, when artistic director Craig Trompeter and friends brought an exciting, scrupulously musical account of the master’s sacred oratorio La Resurrezione di Nostro Signor Gesu Cristo—best known as La Resurrezione—to Gannon Concert Hall in the Holtschneider Performance Center of DePaul University. Chase Hopkins again served as creative producer.

Loosely based on the Gospels’ accounts of Christ’s Resurrection, La Resurrezione is opera by other means, written in 1708 during the young composer’s Roman sojourn: a sacred drama masquerading as an oratorio because of the papal ban on opera in Rome during that era. The 23-year-old composer responded with an ambitious, richly varied score of surpassing brilliance for the singers and players alike, filled with bold instrumental effects.

Handel’s portrayal of the titanic battle between the protagonists of darkness and light, culminating in the victory of Christ’s acolytes over death, well and truly launched the composer on his storied path to fame and glory.

Haymarket pulled out all the proverbial stops for this one. A top-flight American vocal ensemble was led by the accomplished British early-music specialist Christian Curnyn, in his welcome return to the city. He led the company’s expert period band—20 instrumentalists in all, headed by guest concertmaster Rachel Barton Pine— and a trusty continuo team with verve and idiomatic assurance. 

Handel sets the dramatic temperature on high in the opening scene where the coloratura Angel proclaims Christ’s victory, cutting short the ranting and gloating of Lucifer following the crucifixion. 

Sarah Brailey and Jonathan Woody threw themselves fearlessly into their sparring. She braved her ornate aria with a soprano of radiant beauty, heft and flexibility, savoring the expressive contrast with her later, more lyrical aria. The bass-baritone turned up the dramatic intensity on the Devil’s florid bluster powerfully yet elegantly, summoning the powers of Hades to join in an epic showdown with Heaven. Undeterred by Handel’s cruelly wide vocal range and jagged intervals, Woody made a formidable antagonist.

That said, one couldn’t vouch for the absolute accuracy of his pitches at the very end of the vocally demanding performance as Lucifer stormed off the stage in abject defeat.

Returning to Haymarket were two of the troupe’s shining stalwarts, soprano Hannah De Priest as Mary Magdalene and tenor Scott J. Brunsheen as John the Evangelist.

It was hard to imagine anyone delivering a more deeply affecting account of her taxing role than what De Priest offered on this occasion. Her bright, ideally focused sound, allied to a probing expressive intelligence, served Mary’s sorrowful outpourings as beautifully as it illuminated her “sleep” aria later on, which Handel sensuously scored for recorders, violins and sustained bass pedals.

Brunsheen was even more impressive here than in previous Haymarket outings as he dispensed the Evangelist’s wisdom and comfort with Handelian authority. His even, smoothly rounded tone, wielded with immense sensitivity to words and music, invested everything he sang with palpable emotional depth.

What a pleasure it was to hear his stylish vocalism interwoven with solo instruments, as witness the “turtle dove” aria colored by baroque flute (Leighann Daihl Regusa), viola da gamba (Trompeter) and lute (Brandon Acker). 

De Priest’s gleaming timbre contrasted nicely with the alluringly dark mezzo coloration of Quinn Middleman’s Mary of Cleophas in their duet. Middleman was technically secure and musical, if at times a bit bland of expression compared with the other solo singers.

Curnyn knew when to allow his players their choice moments in the sun without interference and when to take command, shaping a seamless performance that breathed with dramatic life for its entire 2-½-hour duration, including intermission. Judicious pacing, crisp textures and sharply etched rhythms all contributed to the success of the whole. The orchestra played very well for its honored podium guest. 

Worthy of mention were the yeoman solo and continuo contributions from Barton Pine on violin, Andrew Rosenblum on harpsichord, the oboe/recorder duo of Kathryn Montoya and Stephen Bard, trumpeters Ryan Berndt and David Kjar, and bass Jerry Fuller.

In keeping with the quasi-operatic nature of La Resurrezione and the circumstances of the original performances, the ornate projection designs created by Camilla Tassi, based on paintings of the Italian Renaissance, lent authentic flavor to the presentation. Minor quibble: Their effectiveness was unfortunately compromised by unwanted shafts of light from the hall’s permanent stage lights.

More Handelian riches are on the way this fall when Haymarket Opera will give the Chicago premiere of Handel’s rarely heard Tamerlano to celebrate the opera’s 300th anniversary Sept. 19-22. haymarketopera.org

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