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Handel’s Samson Abides


First performed at Covent Garden on February 18, 1743, Handel’s Samson underwent many revisions but remained popular throughout Handel’s life. The oratorio was premiered in the United States by the Handel and Haydn Society in 1845. The performance at Symphony Hall on Friday evening, May 2nd by the Society’s chorus and period instrument orchestra under Harry Christophers proved its longevity and its popularity once again. The performance will be repeated on Sunday, May 4th, at 3 pm. This review is of the May 2nd performance.

The libretto by Newburgh Hamilton (1691-1761) was based on Milton’s Samson Agonistes, the poet’s last work. Milton took the biblical story from an episode in the Book of Judges, centering it on the theme of feminine treachery. He made the seductress Dalila into Samson’s wife, and invented the character of the Philistine giant, Harapha. Hamilton added a second chorus of Philistines to balance Milton’s chorus of Israelites, and included Micah as female confidant.

After a festive overture in three sections with two obbligato horns and oboes doubling the violins, Act I set the stage with a choral celebration by the Philistines, accompanied by trumpets and timpani along with the strings, and a lilting air by a Philistine woman (soprano Joélle Harvey) contrasting with Samson’s misery. In a series of recitatives and airs he bemoaned his captivity, his blindness, and his weakness at having revealed the source of his strength to a woman. Joshua Ellicott’s dramatic tenor had the persuasive power to arouse our sense of pity. After an orchestral ritornello, his first aria began with the chilling words “Total eclipse,” sung without accompaniment here and each time they reappeared. The dramatic response of the chorus of Israelites with its outcry “Let there be light!” was quoted by Haydn in his Creation. The opening words of the rage aria “Why does the God of Israel sleep?” were again sung unaccompanied. In the fulminations that followed, Ellicott’s voice had the force and the flexibility to handle extensive coloratura passages with conviction. Samson’s father Manoah was sung by bass-baritone Matthew Brook with affecting gravity, culminating in a two-part aria: “Thy glorious deeds” that opened in stentorian unisons with the violins and bass strings before breaking into joyful roulades, and ended in a sorrowful Largo in minor mode. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers sang the role of Micah, embodying her prominent role throughout Act I as confidant, counsellor, and narrator with musicality and dramatic flair.

Act II began in the mood of resignation with which the first act closed, Micah and the chorus of Israelites calling on God to relieve Samson of his suffering. Enter Delila. Soprano Joélle Harvey’s clear, sweet, straight tone suited the character of remorseful innocence expressed in her simile aria as she likened herself to an abandoned turtle dove in warblings echoed by obbligato violin. A minuet-like air, repeated by a chorus of virgins, begged Samson to return her love. After continued rejection by Samson in an exchange of recitatives, Delila changed her tone, however, and began what would have been her own rage aria, only to be joined by Samson in a rage duet. Harapha, Milton’s newly-invented villain, then appeared to taunt Samson further. Dashon Burton made a forceful impression with his ringing bass-baritone and stunning delivery of the aria “Honor and arms scorn such a foe.” A duet for Samson and Harapha matched tenor and bass in a contest of vocal fireworks. A hymn to Jehovah by the chorus of Israelites was countered by a Purcellian invocation to song and dance by the priests of Dagon, the Philistine god. Simultaneous prayers to Dagon and Jehovah by the full cast brought the act to a close.

In Act III, in response to repeated threats by Harapha, Jehovah’s thunder is called upon in an impressive chorus of Israelites, and his wrath invoked in stormy recitatives and airs by Samson and Micah. Samson departs to punish his enemies. A terrible crash is heard. A messenger (tenor Stefan Reed) arrives to recount how Samson, his strength returned, has pulled down the pillars of the Philistine temple, killing his enemies and himself. Micah and the chorus of Israelites mourn his death, and Manoah leads the procession to find his body. The Dead March (lifted by Handel from his oratorio Saul) might seem to have been a fitting conclusion to this tragedy. Eighteenth-century convention, however, called for a happy ending, or at least a triumphal one. At the conclusion of the march, Micah and Manoah rejoiced at Samson’s eternal fame. An Israelite woman (Joélle Harvey) and a chorus of virgins sang his praises. Finally, another Israelite woman (soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad), followed by the full ensemble including trumpets and timpani, took up the final rejoicing with “Let the bright seraphim in burning row / Their loud, uplifted angel trumpets blow.”

Christophers assembled a roster of outstanding soloists for this performance and, needless to say, both chorus and orchestra were in top form. Bringing it all together, Christophers infused arias and choruses with a sense of their underlying dance rhythms and melodic continuity that enlivened the pace without hurry or exaggeration, and revealed the brilliance of Handel’s understanding of dramatic situation and character.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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