Cambridge Chamber Ensemble can still be considered a fledgling organization, despite having mounted seven productions in as many years. The company purposes to present “operatic gems that are not widely known but deserve to be.” On Friday the ensemble offered Handel’s Samson, an oratorio which, in fact, is fairly widely known; Cambridge Chamber Ensemble, however, performed it as a semi-staged opera. CCE’s founder and Executive Director Martha Birnbaum made a strong case for this approach, citing the “overpowering human passions of the narrative”, and one could go still further to say that Handel’s sumptuous music complements the text in portraying the powerful dramatis personae: the hero Samson, friend Micah, traitorous wife Delilah, putative enemy Harapha, and loving father Manoah. The production also telescoped the work from three acts to two (three hours to two and a half) and included costumes and choreography but not sets. While such a trimming process will always be a subjective exercise—and one can’t deny that it inevitably omits some fine music by the 56-year old Handel—it was thoughtfully done, resulting in a mostly coherent dramatic arc and no jarring musical transitions. The laypeople in the audience, though, might have had a deeper appreciation of the details of the story if the program had included the pared-down libretto and there had been enough light to allow them to read it. Moreover, the Stage Director Michael Meraw, perhaps in reference to a widespread tendency in our society, decided to use the pagan god Dagon as a metaphor for unhealthy self-glorification, self-aggrandizement, and need for self-recognition (symbolized by Philistines’ holding cell phones and taking selfies). As an abstract concept this is intriguing, but in a piece wherein this deity is addressed by name multiple times, it becomes dramaturgically problematic at the very least.
Conductor and Music Director Stephanie Beatrice and the small orchestra (one or two players to a part) began the proceedings with a vigorous account of the overture. Special praise to Laura Crook Brisson and the second (uncredited) player who dealt skillfully with the high and frequently exposed horn parts. During the final section of the overture Samson entered, imprisoned and in rags. The first chorus, “Awake the trumpet’s lofty sound”, was energetic and stirring but largely incomprehensible after the first phrase. This was, regrettably, the most persistent flaw of the whole evening. Even a small orchestra (especially using modern instruments) in as reverberant a space as First Church, Cambridge, can overwhelm a chorus of trained singers. And for those unfamiliar with the oratorio, the synopsis should have mentioned that, despite Samson’s prior entrance, the chorus members are the Philistines celebrating the feast day of their deity Dagon and thus pegging them from the start as idolaters (therefore, Samson’s antagonists). Between reprises of this chorus came two arias in further praise of Dagon, one for a Philistine woman and the other for a Philistine man, sung compellingly by soprano Mara Riley (even when obliged to sing supine on the floor) and tenor Tim Ayres-Kerr.
Contralto Allison Gish then effectively darkened the mood, as Micah (a pants role) grieves about the state his friend Samson has been reduced to in his prison cell (“Oh, mirror of our fickle state”). Gish’s enunciation was superior, though a light accompaniment also helped the words emerge. Her singing was moving as Micah encountered his fellow wretched, imprisoned Israelites. After a dialogue of recitatives between the two friends, Samson sings his despairing aria to lament his blinding, “Total eclipse!”. Tenor Michael González tugged at the heartstrings here, employing hollow straight tone at “No sun, no moon!” When Samson’s father Manoah enters, he too is dismayed to see what his once heroically powerful son has been reduced to. Though some of his words were difficult to understand, bass Taras Leschishin touchingly portrayed Manoah’s deep love of his son in a sequence of accompagnato recitatives and aria.
The mood shifts again, however, with the entrance of Delilah, Samson’s wife and betrayer. Though a Philistine, she claims to regret her treachery and be “glad if in aught my help or love could serve to expiate my rash, unthought misdeed.” Soprano Aurora Martin, veiled and seemingly penitent, sang sweetly enough to begin to persuade her husband (though he initially calls her a hyena, he plainly still longs for her), but the seductive aria Martin shares with the Philistine woman, playing on Samson’s blindness to seem like an omnipresent Delilah, clues the audience in to her insincerity. Though Martin and Riley didn’t attempt to match vocal timbres, they no doubt assumed Samson’s yearning for his wife made him less perceptive as, by the end, the two singers were duetting in thirds. Soon enough, though, the prisoner comes to senses and peremptorily dismisses Delilah, whereupon the two have an angry duet (“Traitor to love! I’ll sue no more/Traitress to love! I’ll hear no more”) and Delilah storms off.
Having rediscovered his agency and told off Delilah, Samson must yet endure another fraught encounter, this with his Philistine counterpart, the giant Harapha, who takes pleasure in Samson’s decline from mighty hero to enfeebled prisoner, only regretting that he could not have taken him on and defeated him before Samson lost his strength. Baritone Raphaël Laden-Guindon avoided the trap of making Harapha a mere blustering villain; the giant’s arrogance and dominance were certainly evident, but his purpose was two-fold: harassing his rival while also playing to his fellow Philistines. Thus, he displayed swagger but also a personal magnetism at times, enriching the drama. This character gets the show-stopping aria of Act I (“Honour and arms scorn such a foe”), and Laden-Guindon delivered the goods with numerous brilliant melismas and vocal fireworks. While González’s Samson initially answered his taunts in measured fashion, this aria provoked him sufficiently to challenge Harapha to a duel which the latter disdainfully declined, knowing that fighting a blind man would not be to his credit. Yet the scene does culminate in a duel—of vocalism! Handel’s sympathies are plain enough as he assigns virtually all the showiest passagework to Samson. The two singers gave an exciting performance of this contentious duet, notably aided by the incisive playing Beatrice elicited from her band. Act I ended with a final display piece sung by a double chorus of Israelites and Philistines acclaiming their respective deities, Jehovah and Great Dagon, with identical words. As often happened, the text was obscured by relaxed diction and the very live acoustics, but the rhythmic drive, good ensemble in extended runs, and the text of the last line (“Jehovah/Great Dagon is of Gods the first and last”) made for a memorable rendering.
Act II begins with Harapha reappearing to give a sarcastic “invitation” to Samson to appear at the Philistines’ solemn feast honoring their god, i.e., to be an imprisoned strongman on display, which he, of course, pointedly declines. Fearing for their lives, the chorus (Israelites) sang a powerful da capo chorus with vigorous appeals to Jehovah in the outer sections—“With thunder arm’d, great God, arise!”—and a sharply contrasted, imploring middle section—“And save, oh, save us”. The orchestra’s many cascading runs depicted the thunder effectively though at times at the cost of balance with the chorus. Samson reassures them that after a change of heart he has decided to go. Micah sends him off, blessing him in another brilliant aria, “O holy one of Israel. Though Gish didn’t entirely integrate her chest register with the rest of her voice, her coloratura facility consistently impressed.
Owing to an odd staging choice, most of the audience could hear the partying of the Philistines (first the Philistine man followed by the whole chorus) in rollicking triple meter and accompanied by exuberant orchestral playing, but could hardly see them as they were positioned on the far end of the transept beyond the orchestra, largely in the dark. Perhaps this was a misbegotten attempt to parallel the Israelites who also cannot see but only hear the banquet; Manoah remarks, “What noise of joy was that? It tore the sky.” Micah and Manoah then have a mutual admiration society that finishes with Manoah’s moving final statement of devotion to his son—“Whilst I have eyes he wants no light”—though neither is aware that Samson’s plan involves self-sacrifice. A further sequence of recitatives is interrupted by greatly agitated orchestral music depicting Samson’s pulling down the banquet hall, crushing the Philistine elite and himself. Unfortunately, the terror of the moment was undermined by rapid flashing of colored lights in a manner uncomfortably akin to a 1970s psychedelic rock concert, which distracted from rather than enhanced the drama. At length the Israelites learn what has happened from a messenger, including the worst: that Samson has died. Following a sequence of laments and a poignant funeral march, the surviving Israelites begin to acknowledge and admire the hero’s self-sacrifice that has enabled their release from captivity with the mood gradually evolving from elegiac to celebratory. An anonymous Israelite woman sings one of the composer’s all-time “greatest hits”, namely “Let the bright seraphim.” Soprano Angela Yam contributed a scintillating performance, managing to stand out even in the crowded field of coloratura sopranos who have put their stamp on this warhorse of the repertory. Her vocal pyrotechnics included an interpolated run up to a high D, and she effectively duetted with the also brilliant trumpeter (the uncredited Ryan Noe). Following the unwritten rule that an oratorio must end with a grand chorus, the concluding movement was “Let their celestial concerts all unite”, another of Handel’s most popular creations. The many rapid choral scales both downward and upward helped this finale reach a climax of excitement.
It is plain that Cambridge Chamber Ensemble has access to many accomplished young musicians who, though perhaps not yet household names, are already masters of their craft; this performance, flawed though it was, had much to admire musically. But assuming CCE plans to continue to present musical dramas, it would seem that some additional consideration of what an audience needs—as simple as printed texts, lighting and staging that allows the whole audience to see singers any time they are performing, careful balancing of instruments with voices, and clear enunciation by singers—is in order. I hope this will happen since it seems clear that CCE already has the skills and personnel to achieve consistently top-rank performances that will resound in listeners’ memories for a very long time.