Handel’s oratorio Samson – libretto by Newburgh Hamilton after Milton after the Bible – was composed directly after Messiah and first performed at Covent Garden in 1743. This was two years after Handel’s last Italian opera (Deidamia) and thus early in the period when he consolidated his concentration on English oratorios and other works (for example 1744’s Semele). It was also a time when his singers comprised a number of performers better known as actors, but who had the virtue of being at home with the English tongue. In the case of Samson, Delilah was sung by Kitty Clive, and Israelite commentator Micah by Susannah Cibber, while English tenor John Beard took the title role. Italian singer Christina Avoglio also appeared, obviously valued as a bright soprano as the Israelite Woman.

The female soloists © Thomas Ziegler
The female soloists
© Thomas Ziegler

Samson, like Messiah, Israel in Egypt and Judas Maccabaeus managed to survive in the public esteem while the operas were all but forgotten but seems to have waned somewhat in the modern era, perhaps because it is long and earnest, and may seem somewhat sententious to modern taste. As with many of his projects, conductor John Butt has taken an early music broom to the work which (somewhat paradoxically) means going back to the original source and presenting a version something like what it would have been like at its première. This allows the narrative to unfold at its proper pace and with its appropriate cumulative effect, which means “Let the bright seraphim” is not a party piece for soprano and trumpet but a genuine culmination of bright destiny after the foregoing drama and tragedy. The only loss is the Dead March which was a later interpolation and performing the entire first version means that really it is no loss at all.

This performance at the Halle Handel Festival was almost flawless. The Dunedin Consort, under their regular director Butt, convinced from the first bar of the opening symphony with lively but disciplined orchestral playing, never overwhelming the singers and carrying the work ever forward. Instead of a choir per se, the choruses were sung by the six soloists plus an extra (female) alto. The small vocal forces had the usual benefits of lightness and transparency, but boosted sufficient power at the points when needed, when horns and trumpets and timpani also came into play. Particularly well-handled was the interruption of Micah’s commentary by the war-like symphony and chorus of Philistines (“Hear us, our God!”).

Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche © Thomas Ziegler
Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche
© Thomas Ziegler

At the centre of the performance was the towering performance of Joshua Ellicott in the title role. Not only did his voice ring out with powerful tenor tone, but he was utterly convincing in the role of the apparently powerless hero quietly gathering his strength for the final assault. He was matched in both voice and conviction by Matthew Brook’s Manoah, deeply moving as the distressed but loyal father, also singing with resonant bass voice that maintained its power to the tragic but triumphant end. Possibly the most sustained role is that of Micah who observes and comments from the Israelite viewpoint, although it is not as emotionally demanding as the roles of Samson and Manoah. It was sung by English contralto Jessica Dandy, whose voice was perhaps just a tad too small for the venue, but it was nevertheless beautifully sung, with great range and formidable low notes, excellent technique and subtle feeling, particularly in “Return, O God of hosts”.

The “specious monster” Delilah was seductively portrayed by soprano Sophie Bevan, with warm, rounded tone and gleaming high notes; it was hard to see how Samson could resist, and his “Out, thou hyena” demonstrated his need to put up a good fight. Unnamed in the program, two more English sopranos contributed to the vocal glories on display, and all three delighted as the Chorus of Virgins. Rebecca Bottone sparkled initially in “Ye men of Gaza”, and delivered a perfectly judged and technically immaculate “Let the bright seraphim” with pure bright tone, accurate coloratura, pretty top notes and the sweetest imaginable smile. The trio was completed by Emily Mitchell who rendered Philistine Woman’s and other Israelite Woman’s arias with grace and style. Young tenor Hugo Hymas, with a voice somewhat lighter than that of Ellicott, sang well as An Israelite.

****1