When you study theatre history one of the first things you may encounter is the quem quaeritis trope.
It’s so short that I can quote it in its entirety, a tiny four line drama re-enacted at Easter in churches.
Angels: whom seek ye? (or in Latin, “quem quaeritis?”)
Women: (Mary Magdalene and other women, possibly including the Virgin Mary) Jesus of Nazareth
Angels: He is not here, He is risen. Go spread the good news that He is risen.
The roots of the trope are as old as Christianity. Indeed you could make the argument that this exchange is fundamental to the religion, the root of Christianity itself.
Dramatizing such a story used to be a matter of great delicacy, as for instance when Handel’s undertaking with librettist Carlo Sigismondo Capese collided with papal restrictions during Lent, 1708, when the composer was still in his 20s and Messiah was still more than a quarter century in the future, the output of a mature composer, not a youngster in his 20s. I have to pause and talk about that. We think of Mozart or Schubert or Korngold or Mendelssohn when invoking the genius of youth. Let’s add Handel to the list, who was all of 23 years old when he composed Resurrection, a remarkably mature work belying his age.
And now Opera Atelier have made a film of Resurrection that’s especially apt for this moment as our society begins to re-open, to attempt to come back after a pandemic. Handel’s Resurrection is also Opera Atelier’s, and yes it’s our own resurrection as well. The film is in place of a live production scheduled for April 2020 but postponed.
Although La resurrezione (The resurrection) was composed as an oratorio rather than an opera, the difference between operas (meant for the theatre) and oratorios (meant for concert presentation) has become a matter of semantics in the 21st century, when oratorios are staged as though they were operas, and operas are often given in concert. The genre question is complicated even further when we watch it as film, imagining it with an audience in a theatre.
The resulting work is a curious mixture of traditional and COVID-protocol, as we watch historically informed dances performed in surgical masks. While one might suggest it’s post-modern in its fusion of a genuine baroque sensibility with so much that is new, actually we forget the modern stuff pretty quickly. It’s theatre and that means a willing suspension of disbelief, except that in the operatic realm surely you don’t have problems with suspending disbelief or we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Angels singing coloratura? Mary Magdalene, Lucifer and John singing arias? Triumphant Handelian choruses of celebration?
But of course.
The set from the reliably inspired mind of Gerard Gauci mixes representational elements that would not be out of place in a medieval play, such as one might have seen in Toronto from PLS, the early theatre specialists.
We’re mostly seeing a spectacle performed on set installations inside a beautiful ballroom with a chandelier, to gently suggest places such as the sepulchre of Jesus, a shining platform apt for the Archangel or another darker one for Lucifer: just as you might get in a medieval mystery play. While there’s a big empty space in the middle for singers and especially for dancers, those platform installations impact the dramaturgy of the film, as both director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg sometimes subdivide the stage, seeming to create localized events. The sepulchre is first shown occupied, later with flowers, but it is a subset of the larger stage as though it were an actual locale, and not just a place to play the scene.
The result, hurdling all obstacles with the usual Opera Atelier athleticism & creative flair, is stunningly beautiful. The work is about 90 minutes long. There are two actions. In one an archangel leads an army (dancers carrying swords) to the gates of Hades against Lucifer, who initially proclaims victory but is eventually humbled. On earth meanwhile, we see Mary Magdalene and Cleophas mourning Jesus, John the Evangelist who encourages them to visit the tomb, where they eventually encounter the angel, and hear its exhortation to spread the good news.
Soprano Carla Huhtanen is strong as the archangel, sometimes celebratory, sometimes ironic when mocking her adversary.
Douglas Williams’ Lucifer might remind you of the romantic misconception about Satan as hero of Paradise Lost, unrepentantly the star in his own mind and in his rhetoric, a persuasive villain musically & dramatically.
On earth we’re consoled by the voices of soprano Meghan Lindsay as Mary Magdalene and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy as Cleophas, a series of flawless arias from each. Tenor Colin Ainsworth as St John is positively stirring, a voice I’ve missed.
As Resurrection is an unknown work there can be no orthodoxy. While the use of ballet, (even if the movement is true to the period), is surely anachronistic, let’s be crystal clear. Opera Atelier are as much a ballet company as an opera company, and dance is their strength. The dance elements employed in Resurrection illuminate the action, providing a release of tension. The dancers look like angels.
We’re hearing the best sounding Tafelmusik performance I can recall, led by David Fallis. His musical direction, including a scholarly study of the score, is the best reason to see & hear Resurrection, even if he is invisible. The music was pre-recorded, the singers & dancers lip-synching (and toe-synching?) along. Elisa Citterio is the Music Director for Tafelmusik, who seem to be attaining greater heights every time. Whether I should be thanking her for making the ensemble in which she plays so wonderful or David for his leadership is perhaps a moot point. I only wish we could see them somehow, as this is the one troubling omission, a film from a period ensemble with no sign of the period musicians or their leaders. But I’m being a stickler I suppose.
The opera can be seen for $25 via Opera Atelier’s website.
Here’s a documentary about the making of The Resurrection.