Emmanuel Music’s performance of Handel’s oratorio Susanna on Saturday at Emmanuel Church brought the story vividly to life with a stellar cast of singers and instrumentalists led by music director Ryan Turner.
Susanna tells the story of the chaste young wife who is framed by two elders (corrupt judges, in fact) who, “inflamed by lust,” set upon her as she bathes in her garden during her husband’s absence. When she rejects their advances, they accuse her of adultery with a younger man. Tried and found guilty, Susanna is sentenced to death. The young Daniel arrives on the scene and, acting as Susanna’s defense, cleverly interrogates the two elders separately, proves the falsity of their conflicting testimonies, and restores the vindicated Susanna to her grateful husband. The story, which is appended to the Book of Daniel in the Vulgate Bible and included among the books of the Apocrypha in the Lutheran and Revised English translations, inspired paintings by Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Rubens, Thomas Hart Benton, Picasso, and countless others. Handel too, experiencing an extraordinary late life comeback in the 1740s after suffering a mental and physical breakdown brought on by two strokes, must have been attracted by the subject’s dramatic and emotional potential.
The anonymous libretto of this opera-within-an-oratorio has its share of doggerel rhymes, but Handel’s skillful settings go beyond mere word painting to depict emotional states with astonishing naturalness amidst the wealth of Baroque roulades and ornamentation. Act I set the stage, so to speak, with a solemn overture in the French style followed by a mournful chorus. Rhythmically tentative in the opening, the orchestra of strings reinforced by oboes and bassoons settled into a lively rendering of the fugal section that followed. Set as a passacaglia over a repeated chromatically descending bass pattern, a traditional theme of mourning, the chorus of Israelites bemoaned their captivity by the Babylonians. The appearance of the young lovers brought an entirely different mood. In the trouser role of Joacim, Susanna’s husband, mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore sang with clear, straight tone and wonderful clarity throughout her considerable range, executing pastoral airs and galant flights of fancy with equal aplomb. In his rousing heroic aria “Who fears the Lord may dare all foes,” baritone Mark McSweeney (as Susanna’s father, Chelsias) matched the instrumentalists in contrapuntal agility. Soprano Kendra Colton brought a wide range of expression to the role of Susanna. Somewhat reticent in her first few numbers, she clearly projected a sense of foreboding in her accompanied recitative “What means this weight” and the following aria, in which the ornamental fireworks of the da capo repeat took on increased emotional energy.
With the appearance of the two lascivious elders, the mood turned to subtle comedy overlaid with menace. Tenor Frank Kelley, the first elder, sang his first, accompanied recitative with over-the-top emotion, trembling with agitato lust for the hapless Susanna, then followed this outburst with a sweetly innocent strophic air in the pastoral tradition. The second elder, Donald Wilkinson, after admitting his own infatuation, launched on a travesty of a rage aria, comparing himself to an oak suddenly felled by lightning. Wilkinson’s sonorous bass vied alternately with violins and bassoons, negotiating running coloratura and awkward leaps in true buffo fashion. Not to be outdone, Kelley responded with an equally virtuosic “trumpet” air (the trumpets evoked by violins), responding to love’s challenge with a mock-heroic call to arms. The conclusion of Act I returned to the serious mood of the opening in a grand chorus calling on divine wrath, a stately chordal invocation followed by a monumental fugue.
Act II sees Susanna importuned, then blackmailed by the elders. In a pastoral song, “Crystal streams in murmurs flowing,” Kendra Colton engaged in an exquisite and perfectly-phrased dialogue with the strings. Asked by Susanna to sing her the song with which Joacim wooed her, attendant mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal obliged with a simple strophic ballad, then with a beautiful rendition of a mournful siciliano recalling her own dead lover before leaving the stage. The first elder attempted to seduce Susanna with saccharine courtesy, even offering a flower, while the second threatened her with menacing buffo bluster. A highpoint of the act was the beautifully executed trio, in which the established affects of the three characters—steadfast, lovesick, and threatening—were differentiated musically in the best tradition of operatic ensemble. In Susanna’s air, “If guiltless blood be your intent.” which contrasts a fast-moving heroic opening section with a slower, more resigned middle section, Colton used the varied Da capo return, with its virtuosic ornamentation, to display her increased resolve. The chorus of Babylonians, “Let justice reign,” was a legalistic fugue, with voices and orchestra perfectly coordinated in a brilliant contrapuntal exchange. Joacim’s aria “On the rapid whirlwind’s wing” featured an equally brilliant vocal-instrumental duet for soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore and violinists Heidi Braun-Hill and Danielle Maddon.
The trial took place in Act III. Colton was deeply affecting in her largo air, “Faith displays her rosy wing” and in her disdainful response to the first elder’s hypocritical tears. The appearance of soprano Teresa Wakim as a self-assured young Daniel added another fine singer to the mix. Entering without accompaniment on the words “Chastity, thou cherub bright,” her final air was notable for pure straight tone and beautifully sustained high notes. Susanna’s mood shifted to the triumphant in her final air “Guilt trembling spoke my doom,” as Colton’s voice took on a heroic color in an impassioned dialogue with trumpet-like violin roulades. The final chorus, with real trumpets, was almost anti-climactic. Kudos to Ryan Turner and the talented singers and players of Emmanuel Music for mounting this seldom-heard work in a well-paced performance that was emotionally and musically convincing.