Handel’s Susanna – a contemporary courtroom drama (5 June)

Susanna – An Oratorio in three acts

Susanna – Rachel Nicholls
Joachim – Andrew Radley
First Elder – Mark Curtis
Second Elder – Simon Kirkbride
Chelsias – Arwel Huw Morgan
The Witness – Rebecca Bottone

Early Opera Company & Orchestra
Christian Curnyn

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 5 June, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Just before the start of the Early Opera Company’s Susanna, the man behind me said to his neighbour: “I think my wife’s quite pleased she’s missing this”. As it happened, that neighbour left at the interval. She was justifiably annoyed by the gimmicky, distracting production by Netia Jones.

It was one of those productions, updated of course, which had to have movement whilst an aria was being sung; just one form of distraction. Another was to have a large video screen offering moving pictures in the background. Does the producer think that people in the audience are incapable of watching and listening to a singer standing still while singing? Or is it that, to misquote Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, ’distraction’s our delight’?

The scene was a courtroom, with a bed in its well (so not the Old Bailey then?). Susanna, the one from the Apocrypha, was being tried for adultery. I wonder how much all the unnecessary gimmicks cost. That, though, is enough about the production: it did not deserve the prominence that I am giving to it.

Musically, matters were better. They had to be. The small orchestra of eleven players under Christian Curnyn was most pleasing on the ear, stylish in its playing.

The enunciation of some of the singers was poor, particularly in Act One. Even a friend who had been sitting near the middle of the front row complained about it. Apart from that, the singing was pleasing, with no aspirates marring divisions.

Rachel Nicholls brought warm tone and the necessary flexibility for the more intricate passagework, crowning her performance by conquering not only the difficulties of her final aria, “Guilt trembling spoke my doom”, but also the producer’s imposition of too much movement (again!). Rebecca Bottone, whom I had not previously heard, was very attractive of tone. I should certainly like to encounter her again, in better circumstances. She had to sing her first aria halfway back, which meant that she was facing away from much of the audience, with the sound going in the wrong direction.

As Joachim, Susanna’s husband, Andrew Radley exhibited a sweet counter-tenor, rather weak in its lower range but caressing Handel’s lines, two comments which also applied to Arwel Huw Morgan’s singing of Chelsias, Susanna’s father.

The ’baddies’, the lascivious elders, were Mark Curtis and Simon Kirkbride, who probably had the ’juiciest’ roles, the latter being required to let his hand run freely over parts of Susanna’s body (oh dear, how boring!). Each was in very fine voice, with technique up to the task.

Musically, therefore, it was generally a worthwhile show, and, despite the production, Handel survived, but his oratorios are best performed as oratorios.

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