Prom 50: Handel’s Samson

Samson – Oratorio in three Acts to a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton after John Milton’s Samson Agonistes [sung in English]

Samson – Allan Clayton
Dalila – Jacquelyn Stucker
Israelite Woman – Joélle Harvey
Micah – Jess Dandy
Harapha – Brindley Sherratt
Manoa – Jonathan Lemalu
Messenger – Will Pate

Philharmonia Chorus

Academy of Ancient Music
Laurence Cummings

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 23 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

The Academy of Ancient Music was swelled in number for Handel’s oratorio Samson (premiered 1743) to fill out the stage of the Royal Albert Hall and its vast space with music, but on the whole it still didn’t succeed in the latter aim except in some resounding choruses. They were given by the Philharmonia Chorus with splendidly unanimous sound and crisp diction underlying their imaginative engagement with the narrative – both as Philistines and Israelites.

Despite those typically Handelian choral edifices, the human drama at the centre of this work is a rather sombre one: based upon John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, the Biblical hero is already blind and a prisoner of the Philistines as the oratorio opens. His famous confrontation with them, in which he also sacrifices himself for the good of his fellow Israelites by pulling down the temple over himself as well his enemies, is only reported (here by Will Pate’s charismatic Messenger) and very briefly depicted in a ‘Symphony of Horror and Confusion’. As such it is not exactly a big, celebratory composition for a place like the Proms. Too often much of the instrumental and vocal detail was surely lost in the further reaches of the hall (confirmed by overhead comments during the interval) and a rather linear performance by the AAM under Laurence Cummings’s direction didn’t always draw one into the drama.

Allan Clayton did succeed wonderfully in captivating attention with his quiet, undemonstrative lyricism that was precisely attuned to the text in drawing out its expressive, dramatic potential. Nothing more was needed, and even in such a gloomy passage as the accompanied recitative ‘My genial spirits droop’ an inner glow radiated from his voice. As his Philistine opponent, Harapha, Brindley Sherratt evinced a bold, larger-than-life character – the only other soloist who projected outwards to the audience a truly idiomatic, developed personality.

Jacqueline Stucker was disappointing as Delila, her appearance confined to a sequence of numbers in the middle of Act Two as she fruitlessly seeks to win back Samson’s affections after betraying him. She was strangely serious and stiff in musical demeanour, not especially seductive, though her impact was not helped by the echo around her when she first appeared above one of the side entrances to the stage, before making her way down to its front. In her duet and chorus ‘My faith and truth’, her commands to Samson “hear me” were constricted in tone, issuing more as a dry warble than a coaxing imperative. The part of Samson’s friend, Micah, tended to lie too low for Jess Dandy, who struggled to draw a firmly delineated line over the orchestra; in the upper register she was merely solid and even, if scarcely much stronger, in tone. Jonathan Lemalu was unobtrusive in his brief appearances and single air as Manoah, Samson’s father, somewhat garbling the text. Joélle Harvey charmed considerably in the poise and vitality of her numbers as the Philistine Woman, bringing more dignity to bear in her other appearance as the Israelite Woman in the famous concluding air ‘Let the bright seraphim’, accompanied with resplendent flair on the trumpet.

It was a pity that the cavernous hall simply emphasised the unequal temperament of the horns in the Overture: they might just as well have been playing any notes in their natural series for all the sonic smudging that resulted. No fewer than six oboes registered very little. The AAM matched the chorus in the more extrovert sections of the work for vigour. But otherwise more dramatic bite and variety would have made this performance more sparkling and memorable, two excellent vocal soloists notwithstanding.

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