Even absent surtitles or libretto, the smarmily smiling, cellphone toting, selfie-prone, Dagon-worshiping Philistine lounge lizards and vamps (including a playmate centerfold pose for the mostly clad Delilah), could easily be distinguished from their God-fearing counterparts. Clad in sad rags from a shredded Christmas pageant, the Israelite contingent also wore woeful countenances, appearing downcast almost throughout. No little cognitive dissonance arose from the conceit of contrasting the period-plausible Israelites with the modernized Philistine villains in Handel’s Samson (running at First Church Cambridge through Saturday). Stage Director Michael Meraw envisioned the latter as practitioners of “an unhealthy glorification of self, into a modern frame using the idea of social media and our addiction to its self-aggrandizement and need for self-recognition,” rather than simply the intended biblical nasties who worshipped Dagon.
But Handel’s theatricality once again triumphed in Cambridge Chamber Ensemble’s production of this very stageable oratorio. Executive Director Martha Birnbaum and crew artfully and thankfully shrank three hours-plus to a little over two, enabling the show’s pacing of the human interactions to work with the impact of a stage play. And those remaining choruses and arias, culled as some of them must have been from Handel’s deep sourcing, gave the singers and players ample opportunity to show off not only facility, but also engagement in plot and character. The pathos came as if from wells of Handel’s most sacred yearnings, but the story-advancing recitatives, arias, and choruses evoked such top-drawer work as “Oh Ruddier than a Cherry,” “Arm, Arm Ye Brave,” and even the Hallelujah Chorus.
Meraw placed the action on the broad chancel, with Holly Gettings’s 20 color-changing lighting instruments and a single follow spot defining the performing space and focusing our attention. The minor characters stepped out of the choruses; all the players kept dragging themselves about the chained Samson, variously mugging, limping, and weeping―often playing to the house as much as to each other. I do think the production seriously erred by hiding the Philistines’ final party scene in the dark recesses of the transept, though it will be visible in the eventual video. We wanted to watch it, like the irresistible Bacchanal in Saint-Saëns’s take on the story. Couldn’t the producer have sourced a few Styrofoam columns for the pagan temple collapse? Instead of Samson on his bier before sobbing mourners, the Israelites had to reference his invented prayer shawl.
Handel doesn’t dwell on wailing; rather quickly he gives way to mustache-twisting melodrama and joy, often with scrumptious and emotionally attuned details of orchestration. In the most theatrical moment of the evening, a transcendentally glowing blond Israelite Woman materialized at the apse, wearing a white Egyptian gown with an asp necklace and arm bracelet. With high c’s, coloratura, and irresistible presence, angelic Angela Yam strode forward like a joyful Queen of the Night to lead the chorus in the satisfyingly boffo closer, “Let the Bright Seraphim.” [Costume designer Brittania Gigler draped her much more vividly than the other Israelite women.]
The reliable and energetic orchestra (2/2/2/2/1 plus winds, brass, timpani, and harpsichord) supported the show well despite being placed disadvantageously in the muddying transept. Stephanie Beatrice led the band over something like 30 numbers, rarely letting up the energy, though she could effectively hold back in the reflective moments. The dynamics tended to be more of the stepped than the shapely variety, and the two-on apart stings occasionally disagreed about pitch. If lineups in fast passages sometimes suffered from the acoustics and the distancing, the great continuo playing of harpsichordist Libor Dudas and cellist Anna Seda stitched the recitatives together with suavity and helped make the show feel like non-stop theater. And I take pleasure in calling out the high-flying Ryan Noe and the timpanist Michael Zell for the great trumpet-and-drums closer. Hallelujah! Worth the price of admission alone!
Singers stepped out of the strong and active 14-person chorus to take on eight lesser roles, always making vivid impressions. As Harapha the Giant, Samson’s tormentor and one of God’s eventual fall guys, the thin and tall bass Raphaël Laden-Guindon acted with slightly camp villainy but voiced the role with authority, and he clearly put the words across as did only two others. Most of the rest swallowed or elided their consonants almost entirely. Even in the front row I felt the need for surtitles. From further back in the church catching the words was reported as an impossibility. Would the Cambridge Chamber Ensemble have omitted titles had the play been in a foreign language? With problems in enunciation, the sung English too frequently came across as a foreign language, leaving us at a loss to follow the finer points of the plot.
Looking careworn, and walking with a cane, Taras Leschishkin imbued Menoah, Samson’s father with tremendous sympathy in tones of a handsomely aged vintage wine. Allison Gish’s rich and well-placed true contralto gave warmth and credibility to her every utterance as Micah, Samson’s friend. She also partook generously of consonants, projecting Newburgh Hamilton’s texts with clarity.
If a heroic Samson is a no-show in this oratorio, then you have no show. By the time he got to the famous “Total Eclipse” [hear sui generis Jon Vickers do it HERE], Michael González had carried all doubts away and won our gratitude for powerful, colorful, subtle artistry. Every word counted. He cast long pellucid lines to the back of the house and the sanctuary echoed its gratitude.
Consider attending this rewarding show tonight or tomorrow, but bone up on the synopsis beforehand.
See additional review HERE.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer