Susanna, which premiered after Solomon in 1749, is one of Handel’s less performed oratorios, although it has had a few outings in recent years (Göttingen in 2016 and a staged version in Canberra last year). It is not without its challenges. Winton Dean considered that it needed considerable cutting for modern performances – admittedly 50 years ago. The first few scenes take a long time to establish that the married pair Susanna and Joacim are truly, deeply in love, and the drama only really picks up well into Part 2. There are also some very awkward word settings, especially for non-native English speakers. The story however is hardly obscure: although deriving from the Apocrypha, Susanna in the bath has long been a favourite topic of western art, from Tintoretto to Rubens.

Handel's Susanna at the Halle Handel Festival
© Stiftung Händel-Haus

At this year’s Halle Handel Festival, it was performed unstaged under Paul McCreesh with the Kammerorchester Basel and the MDR Radio Choir Leipzig, with mostly English vocal soloists. It must be admitted that the first part did drag. The orchestra sounded fine, as did the choir, with pretty good English diction, and the tempi in themselves did not sound laggardly, apart from some rather dreary-sounding arias. On the one hand, perhaps Winton Dean is right; on the other, there were quite a few rather long pauses between items. It was not helped by some sort of offstage drama, with people running in and out of the hall for presumably medical causes, and McCreesh did hold off resuming for some minutes. And one must wonder why Susanna sang “If guiltless blood be thy intent” four times in all. Things picked up in the second part and the drama really took hold in the third, with the fateful cross-examination of the elders by Daniel being well-managed.

Turning to the soloists, soprano Mary Bevan did not seem to be on her best form, particularly given her brilliant turn in Saul in Göttingen less than a month ago. Perhaps the role lies a bit low for her tessitura, given that it (or parts of it) has been sung by singers regarded generally as mezzos (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Joyce DiDonato, Emily Fons). While her top range was fine, lower parts of it were weak and indistinct. The double role of attendant/Daniel was sung by fellow English soprano Charlotte Shaw, clad in a bright green concert gown for the first role and a more austere black pantsuit for the second. Her sweet light voice was well suited to the part, and there was some touching interaction between her attendant and Susanna. She was not totally audible in “Beneath the cypress' gloomy shade”, but rang out in “Chastity, thou cherub bright” which was quite a highlight.

Countertenor Tim Mead rarely disappoints, particularly in English oratorio. As Joacim, his clear pure tone was more than audible, and “On the rapid whirlwind’s wing” (and who would want to sing that?), accompanied by swooping strings, was a tour de force. The main force of the drama comes, of course, from the two Elders, and both roles were finely sung. Tenor Thomas Walker sang with nice tone in “Blooming as the face of spring” albeit with slightly odd decoration, and Australian bass-baritone Derek Welton was appropriately resonant, but both could have been perhaps a little more characterful in their portrayals. David Soar impressed with low notes as Chelsias, and the even tinier role of the judge was sung by Jakob Oberlein.