Stage Door Review 2023

La Resurrezione

Friday, April 7, 2023


by George Frideric Handel, directed by Marshall Pynkoski

Opera Atelier, Koerner Hall, Toronto

April 6-8, 2023

Angelo: “Risorga il mondo, lieto e giocondo”

At the end of my 2021 review of the film Opera Atelier made of its fully staged production of Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione (The Resurrection), I stated, “It makes one long to see the work live on stage with the same cast as soon as that is finally permissible again”. That time has now come and the production is even more overwhelming experienced live than I could have imagined.

All of the background I provided in 2021 about the work itself is still true and I will quote myself rather than force readers to turn back to the older review.

La Resurrezione, Handel’s second oratorio, was written for his patron when Handel was living in Italy. It was first performed on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1708. Oratorios grew out the ecclesiastical ban on opera as an unseemly entertainment during Lent. Even though Handel’s musical style in his early oratorios is no different from in his operas, he takes care not to offend religious sensibilities in La Resurrezione not having the divine subject of his work appear. (This is also true in Handel’s most famous oratorio Messiah of 1742.)

“The action takes place in a space in front of Christ’s tomb from Good Friday through Easter Sunday. Scenes between an Angel (Carla Huhtanen) and Lucifer (Douglas Williams) alternate with those of three human beings – Mary Magdalene (Meghan Lindsay), Mary Cleophas (Allyson McHardy) and John the Evangelist (Colin Ainsworth).

“In Part I the Angel announces triumphantly that soon Lucifer’s plot in the Garden of Eden to plague humanity with death and sin will be defeated. Lucifer, still full of pride ridicules this notion. Meanwhile on earth, Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleophas mourn the death of Jesus, while John comforts them with the prophecy that Jesus will live again. In Part II the two Marys discover the tomb is empty and they and John see the risen Christ. Meanwhile, the Angel taunts Lucifer with the utter failure of his plans for mankind’s destruction.

“Set designer Gerard Gauci is known through OA for his beautifully painted forced perspective drops that recreate the look of 18th-century scenography. For this production he has shifted from the illusion of three dimension to sets actually conceived in three dimensions”. In 2021 his designs, originally intended for Koerner Hall had to be taken apart for filming in the St. Lawrence Hall ballroom. Now we see the sets as they were originally imagined and they suit Koerner Hall so well that newcomers to the auditorium might not know Gauci’s handsome two-tiered staircases are a set. In fact, they look so attractive that they could be used in future for other productions.

“Beneath the central platform of the lower stairs is a curtain that symbolizes the entrance to Christ’s tomb. This is opened at key moments in each part of the oratorio. In Part I the curtains disclose a life-sized photo of dancer Dominic Who as Christ, that strongly recalls the painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (c. 1522) by Hans Holbein the Younger, the key difference being that the photo of Who depicts a young, healthy man with no signs or torture or decay. In Part II the curtains part to reveal the glass tomb filled with lilies, an exquisite way to declare that Christ has risen from the dead”.

Much more noticeable as “sets” are two rostra Gauci has created and placed downstage to the far left and far right. From these “the Angel and Lucifer respectively debate whether good or evil will triumph. The height of the rostra emphasizes the cosmic nature of the debate between these two beings in contrast to the more human outpourings of emotions from the two Marys and John, who frequently collapse onto the floor or onto the low benches in front of the two rostra”.

The cast of regulars that Pynkoski has assembled over the years has never sounded better. On the one hand they are singing in one of the most acoustically perfect halls in Toronto. On the other, since I last heard them in Don Giovanni in October 2019, the voices of the cast have either maintained their inherent beauty or even improved.

Two voices which have remained exquisite are those of Carla Huhtanen and Allyson McHardy. Carla Huhtanen gives a virtuoso performance as the Angel, tossing off with ease and precision the abundance of coloratura passages Handel gives her. She impresses right from the start with a rousing “Disserratevi, o porte d’Averno” and never wavers in confidence or ability. Pynkoski even gives Huhtanen licence for humour to mock Lucifer’s rage in Part II with gestures signifying “Here he goes again”.

Allyson McHardy creates a sympathetic portrait of Mary Cleophas with her lush, amber-coloured voice. Here McHardy depicts the second Mary’s grief and empathy with Christ’s suffering with the sombre tone of one whose weeping has been transformed into music. She boldy sings the bravura aria “Naufragando va per l’onde”, in which Mary hopes to find Jesus alive, with a wonderful combination of hope underpinned with fear and the glorious duet with trumpet “Vedo il ciel che più sereno”.

To find that Huhtanen and McHardy are still at such level of excellence is a joy. The surprise was that the already fine voices of the rest of the cast had grown in depth and expressivity. As Lucifer, Douglas Williams is as naturally charismatic as ever, but his bass-baritone seems to have become even darker and more resonant. In acting Williams makes Lucifer into a more rounded character than in the film. He takes Lucifer on a journey of boastfulness and fury to dismay that he has been outwitted again by God’s plan finally to hastily retreat back to Hell in an excitingly controlled descent from his highest to his lowest notes.

Colin Ainsworth, who debuted with OA in this role in 1999, still has the overtones of the very high tenor that used to characterize his voice in his youth. Now this lovely voice is rounder and commands a wide palette of colours upon which he elegantly draws to convince us of the strength of John’s faith despite the depth of sorrow he feels. Ainsworth’s rendering of Mary, Jesus’s mother, seeing her son again in “Caro figlio!” is stunning in its depiction of love combined with awe.

The greatest change in vocal quality was that of Meghan Lindsay as Mary Magdalene. Since 2019 Lindsay seems to have moved from a soprano of Baroque delicacy to the power and amplitude of a fully fledged dramatic soprano. This change brought increased emotional heft to each of her arias and made the alteration in Mary Magdalene’s outlook from grief to joy even more marked. In fact, it was much more noticeable live than it was on film that Handel’s focus in this oratorio really is on Mary Magdalene as a representative of all humanity.

As I remarked in 2021, “Jeannette Lajeunnesse Zingg’s choreography is as elegant as always. She takes every occasion to add dance to the oratorio, whether to enhance the choral sections or the more vivid exclamations of the Angel. For the Angel’s very first aria the corps representing spirits, both male and female, are armed with foils as if to highlight the subject of life and death debated by the Angel and Lucifer. In Part II they all hold lilies, symbols of the miraculous transformation that has occurred as well as of the peace that has now entered the world.

“Zingg’s most debatable choice is to include Christ (Dominic Who) among the dancers. Other sacred oratorios have a singing role for Jesus (as in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion of 1724). And the notion of a dancing Saviour is not as unusual as one might think. One need only look at the account of Jesus and the apostles dancing in the apocryphal Acts of John. 96: ‘Thou that dancest, perceive what I do’.

“Rather one could object that Carlo Sigismondo Capece, who wrote the libretto for La Resurrezione, has deliberately not included a part for Christ and has followed the ancients in keeping all deaths and miraculous events off stage. Except for the presence of the Angel and Lucifer, Capece’s libretto seems modelled after Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (401BC) which focusses on Theseus, Antigone and Ismene, who mourn Oedipus’ death only to learn that his death was miraculous and has made the place holy where he died”. For this reason it could be seen as a mistake to include a character that Capece has excluded.

“Nevertheless, Zingg has choreographed this role tastefully with Christ giving the impression of one who is joyful to have been released from death and thus to have saved all humankind”. Zingg also includes a pas de deux of Christ with the Virgin Mary, elegantly danced by Who and Zingg herself, a model of tastefulness and restraint, which builds in meaning every time the eyes of the mother and son momentarily lock”.

Zingg has also included the dancing Angel with wings, exquisitely danced with grace and poise by longtime corps member Edward Tracz, who seems to represent peace as well as the angel who guards the tomb. A gesture from him allows the Marys to sleep. Other gestures allow them to wake and celebrate.

All in all, one could hardly imagine a more powerful fully staged production of a scared oratorio, one that expresses all the drama and pageantry embodied in Handel’s music. One understands how a filmed version was made during the pandemic faute de mieux. But sitting in Koerner Hall I thought nothing is better than the impact of the sound of beautiful instruments and voices directly on the ears and nothing is so exciting as the sight and feel of bodies moving in beautiful patterns through the same space one inhabits. Opera Atelier’s La Resurrezione was a joyous experience in every way.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Artists of the Atelier Ballet (photo of Dominic Who as Jesus in casket); artists of the Atelier Ballet with Carla Huhtanen as the Angel on staircase; Carla Huhtanen as the Angel; Douglas Willians as Lucifer; Meghan Lindsay as Mary Magdalene and Edward Tracz as an angel. © 2023 Bruce Zinger.

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