Spitalfields Summer Festival – Handel’s Susanna

Susanna – Oratorio in three Acts to an anonymous libretto [sung in English]

Susanna – Emilie Renard
Joacim – Tim Mead
First Elder – Thomas Walker
Second Elder / Chelsias – Derek Welton
Daniel – Emma Walshe
Judge – William Gaunt

Early Opera Company
Christian Curnyn

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 12 June, 2013
Venue: Christ Church, Spitalfields, London

Christian Curnyn. Photograph: christiancurnyn.comWritten in 1748 almost immediately after Solomon, Susanna represents Handel at the peak of his compositional and dramatic powers, despite its obscurity. Apart from Hercules and Semele (which are not based on biblical episodes) it is the Handel oratorio that is perhaps most like an opera with its consistently well-wrought musical theatre and succession of mostly da capo arias (two of which were inexplicably omitted from the advertised sequence for this performance). One can almost imagine Charles Jennens casting a similar verdict as he did on Semele, that it is “no oratorio but a bawdy opera”, called the former only “by fools”. The narrative, adapted from the Apocrypha, tells of two Elders falsely accusing Susanna of adultery and her eventual vindication, emphasising her virtue (a watchword in this work). Christian Curnyn states that Susanna is his favourite oratorio, and such enthusiasm and commitment to the work shone through here.

Susanna’s fate is intertwined with – and symbolic of – that of her own people, the Israelites, who are suffering the degradation of captivity in Babylon. This much is made clear in the opening chorus, in which the choir of the Early Opera Company made a bold plea to Jehovah to “hear thy people’s moan”. Their sighs were a little smoothed over, but otherwise the choristers took a fully engaged part in the action, variously as Israelites or Babylonians. Musically the choruses owe much to the genre of ecclesiastical anthem, but the performance was shot through with drama and tension, rather than spiritual reflection.

Tim Mead. Photograph: Richard EcclestoneThe difference between Susanna and the Israelites en masse, however, is that whereas she is blameless, the Israelites have provoked Jehovah’s rage by their repeated crimes. In extolling the pure love between his daughter and Joacim, Derek Welton as Chelsias adopted an almost admonitory tone as though urging the Israelites to follow their example. Welton also took the part of the Second Elder without detriment to the work’s dramatic coherence. As a stern Elder whose lies against Susanna might well be believed, his powerful bass voice struck a contrast to the ingratiating, oleaginous manner of Thomas Walker, singing the tenor part of the First Elder. In proclaiming the burning lust which incites them to their crimes, these singers were careful to characterise such passions as something more than mere rage – and their roles as more than simple old lechers – and perhaps even elicited some sympathy for their uncontrollable feelings. That is, up to the point where they embark on their inexcusable and hypocritical calumny.

Although Joacim might be thought a somewhat passive, feckless husband, musically he forms a dynamic complement with Susanna, ably realised by Tim Mead and Emilie Renard respectively, not least in the emotional and vocal unanimity of their two duets. For precision and purity of voice, they were a perfect match, aptly mirroring the chastity they embody: their soprano and countertenor ranges contrasted eloquently with the gruff sleaziness of the Elders’ lower voices. Susanna has the lion’s share of the most memorable music, to which Renard brought a particularly noble depth in those arias in which she expressed her steadfast trust in God, conveying also the impression of being an assertive, independent-female – for instance in the opening recitatives or the altercations with the Elders. The difficult melismatic lines in arias such as ‘On fair Euphrates’s verdant side’ and ‘On the rapid whirlwind’s wing’ held no terror for Mead, delivered with marvellous clarity and suppleness. Sometimes his expression was perhaps a little clinical, but certainly he established a person of likeable simplicity that stood out in signal opposition to the duplicity of the Elders.

In the part of Daniel, Emma Walshe, given her character comes to Susanna’s aid, cultivated a suitably more sparse and boyish tone. This culminated in ‘Chastity, thou cherub bright’, imparted with unaffected tone in music where Handel is, paradoxically, at his most ravishing. Incidentally it was interesting to note that there was little or no embellishment in the da capo sections of arias which, whether deliberate or not, seemed to underline the work’s message about chastity and virtue.

Throughout, the orchestra provided accompaniments that were more than dutiful or supportive, very often setting the mood and pace for each step of the plot. It was the combined effort of every member of Early Opera Company to bring this neglected oratorio to life and show it to be worth as much attention as any work of Handel’s. That was a commendable achievement for which many, not just convinced Handelians, will have been grateful.

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