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A Rich Sound

Handel's oratorio 'Samson',
enjoyed by ROBERT HUGILL


By the time he came to perform Samson in 1743, Handel had already got a number of dramatic oratorios under his belt. Notably in 1733 he had premièred Athalia and in 1739 he had premièred Saul. In the meantime he had also produced oratorios which were also less dramatically led such as Israel in Egypt (1739), L'Allegro (1740), and Messiah (1742). We should not let Messiah distract us too much; it had been premièred in Dublin in 1742, but it would be some years before the work was popular in London. Initially Samson far out-stripped Messiah in popularity.

The best oratorio librettos that Handel had set so far were the ones compiled by Charles Jennens who seemed to have a good idea for the construction of dramatic oratorios; both Saul and Belshazzar were his, as was of course Messiah. But Handel seems to have been quite catholic in his sources for texts; he had set words by Dryden (the Ode for St Cecilia's Day) and Milton (L'Allegro). So it was perhaps inevitable that Newburgh Hamilton would suggest a dramatic oratorio on the subject of Milton's Samson Agonistes. Hamilton was a poet, part of the group of admirers circling Handel, all of whom were keen to have their hero set texts by exalted English poets.

Hamilton did a brilliant job creating a viable oratorio libretto out of Milton's work. It is not strictly a play, but a long poem concerned with ideas and states of mind rather than dramatic confrontations. Hamilton and Handel seem to have taken this on board so that the piece becomes a series of encounters between the imprisoned, blinded Samson and figures from his past (his father Manoah, his wife Dalila and Harapha the Philistine giant). By the time, in Act Three, that Samson is challenged by Harapha to come and show off his strength to the Philistines, he is not only ready physically but has developed emotionally as well.

Samson is a long show; when uncut there are well over three hours worth of music. On the 1996 recording Harry Christophers and The Sixteen take a generous 205 minutes, each act lasting well over an hour but fitting neatly onto three CDs. For The Sixteen's performance at Barbican Hall, London UK, on Thursday 12 February 2009, the work was substantially cut, bringing the total running time down to three hours (including an interval). I estimate that we lost thirty to forty minutes of music; there was no Israelite Man, no Philistine Man and no solo for the Virgin from Dalila's train. Unfortunately no-one seems to have told the Barbican management that the work was being cut, so that the performance started at 6.30pm (but finished at 9.30pm), which is not an ideal start time on a work day evening.

When Christophers started the overture, his audience consisted of a large number of harassed and stressed travellers. But the lithe and lively account of the overture from The Orchestra of the Sixteen soon soothed our spirits and brought us into Handel's world. Christophers used quite a large band (31 players) with a choir of eighteen, but this worked very well in terms of balance and the large string section of eleven violins enabled him to give us a rich sound. Christophers used quite a large and varied continuo section, adding a theorbo and harp to the harpsichord and cello. Personally I felt that this created rather a fussy texture at times, but others obviously liked it.

Mark Padmore sang the subsidiary tenor role on The Sixteen's 1996 recording of Samson; now he has graduated to the title role. The role was written for the great John Beard and is one of the biggest and most heroic of Handel's tenor roles. But let's not get too carried away with the heroic bit, after all Beard created the roles of Jupiter and Apollo in Semele the year following Samson's première, and he was a regular in Messiah during that period.

Padmore does not have a heroic voice, but he has superb commitment and a vividly dramatic delivery. Unfortunately his tone was a little shallow and my companion did wonder whether he might have been suffering from a cold, though no announcement was made. The end result was to rather over-emphasise his delivery, with its projection of words and strong vibrato. Padmore's Samson was an intense performance, vigorously delivered. But there were moments when you would have liked more line, more ringing tone and a less intrusive way with the vocal line, particularly in moments like 'Total eclipse'. But this is, perhaps, to be overly critical; Padmore's performance was an immense achievement and he is a vividly communicative artist.

Up until the second scene of Act Three, Samson is on-stage continually, a highly unusual occurrence in baroque dramaturgy. Similarly his friend Micah is on stage continuously as well. Micah was an invention of Hamilton's, inserted into the drama to give Samson someone to talk to; the role of Micah uses texts which Milton wrote for the Israelites. Handel wrote the role of Micah for a woman: it was first performed by Mrs Cibber, an actress who also sang the contralto solos in the première of Messiah. Her emotional delivery was particularly admired at the time.

Handel gave the role of Micah to a woman because the role is intended to be a young man, and with rare exceptions, Handel's young heroes are sung by high voices. Catherine Wynne Rogers, who sang Micah at The Barbican, has had the role in her repertoire for a number of years, and her command of it is total. She provides a strong emotional heart to the piece; her commitment and sense of musical line in an aria like 'Return, O God of Hosts' was impressive. But in no sense did she convey the idea that Micah was a young man, her delivery was that of a concerned and loving Aunt, so that something of Micah's impetuousness was lost. The gain was, of course, in the way Rogers uses her secure technique to project Handel's wonderful music, the feeling that emotion and musicality are joined.

Gillian Keith sang the Philistine and Israelite Women as well as Dalila. Her account of the Israelite Woman's 'Let the Bright Seraphim' was especially notable. In Act Two, Keith changed both her dress and demeanour to ensure that we felt Dalila to be a different personage. Frankly, I prefer a slightly lower, fuller voice in the role; I have always admired Janet Baker's account on the classic recording. But Keith was suitably attractive and wooing in the opening sections, she also had a nice line in pique towards the end of Dalila's interchange with Samson.

In fact the role was written for Kitty Clive who was a notable singing actress, specialising in comedy parts. In presenting Dalila sung by Clive, Handel was ensuring that the role's seductive dramatics were taken seriously. It would be the equivalent, nowadays, of having a role in a contemporary oratorio sung by Julia Mackenzie or Barbara Cook. Keith, perhaps, did not quite achieve the emotional truth necessary in the role, but she came pretty damn close and her technique was admirably secure.

Roderick Williams played Manoah, Samson's father, with an admirable firmness and sense of line which did rather put Mark Padmore in the shade. Like Rogers, Williams was strong on emotional commitment, which is very necessary in a role which rather lacks drama. The essential sense of the whole piece relies on Handel's ability to illuminate emotional states of mind, and the dramatic confrontations are secondary.

But of course, when Samson is confronted by Harapha the boastful Philistine giant, it is necessary that we do feel something of the confrontation. Jonathan Lemalu ensured that we did with his large scale account of the role. Padmore gave as good as he got and ensured that the Harapha/Samson encounter fairly crackled.

I have nothing but praise for the choral contribution from The Sixteen. In using just eighteen singers, Christophers ensured that choral delivery was always admirably focussed and accurate, but the singers worked wonderfully hard and there was never any lack of power or commitment.

This was a fine performance of a great work, marred only by the rather too early start time and the slightly over-enthusiastic cutting. But I won't complain too much as it gave us the opportunity to hear one of Handel's greatest oratorios.

Copyright © 13 February 2009 Robert Hugill, London UK


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