Handel's 'Susanna' from Les Arts Florissants,
assessed by ROBERT HUGILL
Handel wrote Susanna for the same oratorio season (1749) as Solomon and the two seem to share the same anonymous librettist. This librettist was no master and there is much in the dramatic pacing of Susanna that is profoundly unsatisfactory; the long Act 1 is virtually static leaving most of the drama for the remaining two acts. The story is based on the Apocrypha and concerns Susanna, surprised bathing by two of the Elders; when she rejects their advances they accuse her of being unchaste with a youth. She only escapes execution by the timely intervention of the future prophet Daniel, who detects the disparity between the two Elders stories and proves Susanna to be unjustly convicted.
In his book on Handel's oratorios, Winton Dean waxes rather lyrical about this piece and compares it to a comic opera. But more recent commentators have found that the work is rather more complex. Handel surrounds the action with a series of masterly choruses which comment on the action. There is no question of giving the chorus a particular characterisation of its own, as he does in other works. Here they are simply commentators more in the manner of a Greek chorus, heavily pre-figuring the tragedy. And the role of Susanna is rather less than frivolous, as when faced with execution she welcomes death in a manner which heavily prefigures Theodora which was premièred the following year.
The oratorio is still something of a rarity so it was highly pleasing that William Christie chose the work for his 25 October 2009 concert at London's Barbican with Les Arts Florissants. The work was presented in concert but the soloists and the choir sang without music, and the soloists were encouraged to dramatise their contributions and take advantage of a larger than usual performing area. For two of the longer choruses, Christie brought the chorus down to the front of the stage to address the audience directly, which worked very well.
The work opened with a sober account of the overture, followed by the first of Handel's weighty choruses. The choral singers were predominantly French but their sung English was impressive. Often foreign choirs tend not to make enough of the words in Handelian oratorio, but the choir of Les Arts Florissants gave the text its due weight, both in diction and in meaning.
Sophie Karthäuser was a name new to me; she is a young Belgian singer who trained at the Guildhall School of Music. Her Susanna was charming and radiant; you could understand why she inspired such strong emotions in her husband Joacim (Max Emanuel Cencic) and the two Elders (William Burden and Alan Ewing). In Act 1 all she has to do is be radiantly in love with her husband. Then in Act 2 she is fretful, as she misses her husband whilst he is away. But things get more interesting when she brushes off the two Elders in remarkably firm manner. Finally in Act 3 her religious devotion shines through as she welcomes her early death. Perhaps Karthäuser missed the real intensity needed in Act 3 but she sang with constant beauty of tone, charming manner and a fine sense of style. She formed a nice partnership with Cencic's Joacim. It is unfortunate that Joacim has little to do in the piece but express his love for his wife. Cencic did this neatly and beautifully, displaying a neatly formed counter-tenor voice. But he failed to convince me that the work would not have been stronger if some of Joacim's Act 1 arias had been cut. Neither Karthäuser nor Cencic provided perfect sung English, but both were highly communicative and expressive.
The two Elders are the most highly characterised characters in the piece. Handel makes them almost comic characters, but the effects of their casual venery is emphasised by the tragic choruses which frame the acts. Here Christie seemed to encourage two singers to push the comic characterisation as far as possible. Alan Ewing was a fine 2nd Elder, very much in Polyphemus mode. Ewing's dark bass added a fine comic/tragic bluster to the 2nd Elder's arias.
As the first Elder, William Burden stretched characterisation so that it was caricature. There was no doubt about Burden's gifts as a singer of Handel's music but I found his performance a little too much of a comic turn.
Baritone Maarten Koningsberger provided strong support as Susanna's father Chelsias. And Emmanuelle De Negri, as Susanna's attendant, got to sing a pair of lovely (if dramatically redundant) arias in Act 2.
The role of Daniel is relatively small but important. At the first performance it was sung by a boy treble and is nowadays usually sung by a soprano. Here it was performed by counter-tenor David D Q Lee who seemed to encompass the role's high tessitura with ease, producing a series of lovely floated high notes.
Apart from the trumpet parts in the final chorus, Handel's orchestration for Susanna is relatively modest. Christie and his ensemble provided a finely crafted accompaniment up to their usual high standards.
This was a rare opportunity to hear one of Handel's major oratorios. The big advantage of this performance was that it took Handel's work on its own terms and allowed us to assess this fascinating but slightly problematical work. And with strong performances from soloists and choir, we went home entirely convinced.
Copyright © 29 October 2009