Handel’s Samson [Mark Padmore / The Sixteen]

Samson – Oratorio in three acts

Dalila / Philistine Woman / Israelite Woman – Gillian Keith
Micah – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Samson – Mark Padmore
Messenger – Nicholas Mulroy
Manoah – Roderick Williams
Harapha – Jonathan Lemalu

The Sixteen

Orchestra of The Sixteen
Harry Christophers

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 12 February, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The management seemed to have kept the thermostats turned well up and the temperature inside Barbican Hall was on the warm side of comfortable for this continuing celebration of Purcell, Haydn and Handel.

Harry Christophers with 'The Sixteen'“Samson” marks the transition in Handel’s career between his Italian opera and English oratorio periods. Two factors came together in the early 1740s: the decline in popularity of the former and the composer’s realisation that oratorio based on a central dramatic situation could provide opportunities at least as great to move and thrill an audience. The restrictive conventions of opera seria, in particular the da capo structure, did not have to be strictly followed; indeed one of the most impressive features of “Samson” is the free and original structure of the arias.

As Samson, Mark Padmore was superb. There were so many dimensions to his portrayal. The clarity of his words, the intense delivery of the recitative, his colouring of the text and response to dynamic markings and accentuation, his appreciation of Handelian style and transmission of the sheer originality of the composer’s writing. In the early recitatives he vividly exposed Samson’s psychological state: first resentful of the special status ordained for him by God, without hope of consolation, then accepting his responsibility for his own downfall and acknowledging his lack of mental strength. The scorching articulation of such imagery as “Like gangren’d wounds, immedicable grown” and the powerful expression of his essential antithesis “Oh glorious strength! Oh impotence of mind!” were already signs of a singing-actor’s identification with character and dramatic development.

And then came that extraordinary slow first aria “Total eclipse”, with its flexible form, its unaccompanied section, its contrasts of volume and its clashing orchestral chords on key words such as “stars” and “dark”. The contrast with his next aria could not have been greater: from embittered victim to warrior and galvaniser of his nation’s armed forces in “Why does the God of Israel sleep?”. Inspired with patriotic intensity, his handicap was forgotten. Certain words were uttered with rapier-like penetration and the peak notes at the climax rang out in affectingly plaintive tone. Then, in a piece of brilliant writing by librettist and composer, Samson sinks back into exhaustion and a plea to be allowed to die. Even that is not the end of it: his last utterance before going to his fate, the slow aria “Thus when the sun from wat’ry bed” is a piece of inspired poetry as Samson contemplates an action which will channel his revenge and ensure his moral nobility. Padmore’s singing cleansed the character of all his previous faults and left the platform, leaving his self-martyrdom to be reported by a messenger in this work where the depiction of physical action is replaced by poetic elaboration.

The text of his encounter with Dalila in the second Act is more problematical. It goes wildly over-the-top. Padmore took the lines assigned to him at face value: his first response to her appeal to be allowed to expiate her crime is “Out thou hyaena!”. After politely absorbing a fair-sized dose of his vituperation, the audience tittered at such a couplet as “Not for thy life, lest fierce remembrance wake My sudden rage to tear thee limb from limb”. The audience-members were probably sympathetic with Dalila, whose music portrays sincere contrition and, in Gillian Keith’s impersonation, submissiveness. In the aria “With plaintive notes and am’rous moan” she brought a limpid timbre and gentle projection to bear; supported by Walter Reiter’s exquisite violin obbligato. In this context Samson did seem a pantomime character.

While Samson remains one-dimensional throughout, Dalila shows signs of still being in love with him, while his constant rebuttals eventually lead to an assertion of pride before they share the final duet of mutual rejection. Keith’s Philistine Woman in the first Act had been a little slow to warm up but she made as much as could be asked of music and text when returning as Dalila. As the Israelite Woman her lyric soprano carried the final scene, both bisecting the choral expressions of mourning and rejoicing in shared exaltation with the trumpet-playing of Roger Farley in “Let the bright Seraphim in burning row”. She was lithe in the runs and matched his seemingly effortless gleam at the top.

Jonathan Lemalu made an explosive start to his career but he has not seemed to move consistently forward thereafter. Harapha is a colourful part, painted in even broader brushstrokes than Dalila. Lemalu swaggered physically and let loose a stream of resonant tone that suggested he was back to form. If there were some aspirates in the runs of “Honour and arms” he contributed his part to another melodramatic scene with Samson strongly, though avoiding over-acting. In his second aria he added an additional slimy element to his character portrayal. Handel had assured that in their duet Samson would come out musically on top.

Mark Padmore. Photograph: Marco BorggreveThe character of Manoah, Samson’s father, is written much more soberly than these and the light baritone of Roderick Williams, with his fine legato, clear enunciation and restrained style ideally reflected the dignity of the character. His opening aria set the tone with its measured pace and lamenting string postlude, while his last Act aria, as he sought to gain his son’s liberty, created great pathos.

Binding the whole narrative together, though not an objective correspondent, was the Micah of Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Whether introducing characters, commenting on their behaviour, or pontificating about developments, her singing of recitative was incisive and eloquent. Micah has a range of arias to sing; Wyn-Rogers excelled in all of them. The air with chorus in Act Two/scene one was particularly memorable: the mellowness of her tone and delicacy of manner were instrumental in defining a maternal attitude towards Samson. When the chorus joined her in one of those expressive ensemble pieces in which this score abounds, she offered firm strong tone and projected proud defiance. She was equally proficient in the fast music of “The Holy One of Israel be thy guide”.

The Orchestra of The Sixteen is clearly a fine ‘period’ band. One can take for granted its members’ technical accomplishment: no cracked notes on valve-less trumpets or horns here. The orchestra has much tone-painting to do in this work. Throughout a long evening both the continuo support to the recitative and the orchestra’s graphic playing were indispensable to the unfolding drama.

The choir-members, eighteen in number on this occasion, displayed their trademark flexibility, playing hedonistic Philistines and devout Israelites with equal vividness. The best-known choral spectacle comes in the battle between the tribes at the end of Act Two. If anything that was surpassed by the singing in the final pages, with the ravishing sound of the Chorus of Virgins complemented by the weight of the Chorus of Israelites, all then crowned by the blazing concerted finale.

Though the concept of a conductor as a general directing his army from afar still applies to a certain type of music-making, it certainly does not correctly describe the relationship of Harry Christophers with the ensemble which he himself established. Primus inter pares might be a better term: though he directs his forces from the front, it is clear that the love for the work he holds and which he showed at every stage of this performance was shared by all his collaborators.

A feeling of uneasiness that I feel bound to report concerns contemporary parallels with the tribal conflict depicted in “Samson”. The site of the action (Gaza) may be ignored but not the attitude towards violence and the fanatical assumption of legitimacy. The religious antagonism that the oratorio depicts between Judaism and Paganism is expressed in Hamilton’s libretto in uncompromising and partisan terms. The demonisation of the Philistines as a people, and the monochrome characterisation of their symbolic representative Harapha, Samson’s inflamed and obdurate rejection of Dalila’s olive-branch (to make matters worse, Milton portrayed them as married), and the Israelites’ gloating over the Philistines’ death (“Gaza yet stands, but all her sons are fall’n”. “Sad! Not to us”.). In a performance in which the words were so clearly articulated by the singers (including the chorus) the relevance of recent events in the Middle East was constantly being thrust home. I would like to think that any politicians present were encouraged to reflect on what they heard.

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