Samson – Oratorio based on a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton, itself based on Milton’s Samson Agonistes, which in turn was based on the figure Samson in Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges
Samson – Mark Padmore
Dalila – Susan Gritton
Micah – Iestyn Davies
Manoa – Neal Davies
Harpha – Christopher Purves
Israelite / Philistine women / Virgin – Lucy Crowe
Israelite / Philistine man / Messenger – Ben Johnson
The Choir of The English Concert
The New Company
The English Concert
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 20 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The marking of the 250th-anniversary of Handel’s death continue, though it was disappointing to see large areas at the back of the Arena vacant. Handel-the-English-oratorio composer was on show. Composed at the same time as “Messiah”, “Samson” was then more popular than its contemporary, but has fared less successfully since (save for its popular final number, ‘Let the bright Seraphim’). Harry Bicket redressed this successfully in this rapturously acclaimed performance.
The cast could hardly be bettered, with Mark Padmore as Samson (hair suitably cropped as befits Samson, in chains, after Dalila had chopped his hair off to denude him of his strength), Iestyn Davies as his friend Micah and Neal Davies as his father Manoa. Indeed, with Dalila (Susan Gritton dressed in flowing red crushed velvet) only appearing in the middle part, the emotional thrust of the oratorio is between the three men, and is a profound meditation on friendship and kinship. And if that sounds worthy, then Handel is ever-ready to add bright trumpets and horns and a rousing chorus to re-galvanise.
In this cut version (numbers 6-8, 20, 21, 45, 50 & 51 were omitted and some recitatives were shaved, with only the third part complete), there was a sense of drama, even though Handel keeps most of the action, Greek tragedy-like, away from the performing area, so that even Samson’s ultimate revenge on the Philistines is only ‘reported’.
From Samson’s despair at his blinding and lack of strength in the first part through the four extraordinary duets of the second part, to Samson’s decision to attend Great Dagon’s feast, Handel produces a sequence of psychologically perceptive and profound recitatives and arias that need no peripheral staging in the modern manner.
It seems invidious to highlight any particular singer in what was a deeply satisfying evening. Lucy Crowe and Ben Johnson in the multiple smaller roles were as excellent as the singular characters, from bruiser Christopher Purves as Philistine champion Harapha to Padmore’s Samson. Harry Bicket conducted from the harpsichord, with fairly large orchestral forces and a double choir, both The English Consort’s own and the New Company.