Now that the glut of pre-Christmas Messiahs have been well and truly digested, it is very fitting that we should have the opportunity to hear Handel’s Samson, the twin oratorio written just a few weeks after the ink had dried on score of the more famous work. Even though nowadays it is eclipsed by the ubiquitous Messiah, Samson proved initially to be the audience’s favourite. Given its overtly dramatic nature, it is possible to stage it as an opera. In last night’s concert, the Chamber Choir Ireland and the Irish Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Matthew Halls opted for the traditional oratorio form, though this didn’t mean that this fine performance was not short on the odd dramatic flourish.

Matthew Halls © Jon Christopher Meyers | Oregon Bach Festival
Matthew Halls
© Jon Christopher Meyers | Oregon Bach Festival

While the general gist of the biblical story of Samson is well known – Delilah’s betrayal of Samson source of strength – Handel’s oratorio is set much after the fatal haircut. Languishing in captivity, Samson in turns is consoled by his father Manoah and his friend Micah, cajoled by his double-crossing wife Delilah (Dalila in Handel's libretto) and goaded by the giant Harapha. The latter two worship the pagan god Dagon, and as the Philistines celebrate a feast in Dagon’s honour, Samson, with a final spurt of superhuman strength, dashes the pillars of the temple, destroying the Philistines and himself at the same time.

Matthew Halls elected for a lively tempo which kept the momentum of the drama up for the three acts and clocked in comfortably under the three hours mark. Arias followed seamlessly upon the recitatives and the soloists, who were seated to both sides of the stage, walked silently to the centre for their parts. All the soloists were very well matched and three of them in particular (Samson, Micah and Dalila) excelled in their roles.

The sweet heft of James Gilchrist’s tenor voice as Samson impressed from the word go. Convincingly dramatic, with never a touch of bombast, he sang his aria “Total Eclipse” with a restrained pathos while the melismas in “Why does the God of Israel sleep” were glisteningly brilliant. Gilchrist's characterisation was forceful and intense, capturing at once the frustration and anguish of his lot. His rejection of Dalila’s advances “Out thou hyena” and his decrial of her “lust” carried much weight and if it hadn’t been for his severe facial expressions it could have been a moment of some mirth. Of course, only the most curmudgeonly of husbands could not be seduced by the exquisite soprano voice of Katherine Watson as Dalila. Constrained to Act II, she comes with an amende, only to be roughly rejected. I particularly enjoyed her aria “With plaintive notes and amorous moan”. Possessing an exquisite pronunciation and a pleasing projection, Watson wowed with the sweet sound of her voice. In her “Traitor to love” she showed a feistier side to her, though given such a delectable voice, it was difficult to think of her as truly treacherous.

Madeleine Shaw excelled as Micah; mellifluous, balanced and relaxed, she conveyed her heartfelt concern for Samson very well. There was deep nobility to the phrasing of “Ye sons of Israel, now lament” while the aria at the end of act one “Then long eternity” was profoundly moving.

Among the basses, James Oldfield’s characterisation of Manoah was not as dramatic as Samson’s, his son, but his deep voice did convey a sincere pathos in “But who’d be now a father in my stead?” Oldfield’s velvety tone in the lower register contrasted with the tauter sound of Jonathan Best’s Harapha. Best’s ease of projection and physically imposing stature gave conviction to these words from his aria “Though I could end thee at a blow”. In the other minor roles, Kate Macoboy impressed particularly in “Let the bright seraphim” with her lofty phrasing and pearly high notes.

The Chamber Choir Ireland did a thoroughly fine job, alternating between the rejoicing of the Philistines and the mourning of the Israelites. A lusty upbeat tone characterised the former, while Halls elicited a richer, sombre tone for the Israelites as evinced by the close juxtaposition of the two at the end of act two.

If there were a slight criticism to make all evening, it would be of the tuning of the Irish Baroque Orchestra. After an unsettled opening, with some shaky horn playing, the orchestra settled down, the string section providing at times sensitive, at other times lively accompaniment. Particular mention goes to leader Claire Duff who dished up a stylish accompaniment to Dalila’s “With Plaintive notes”. All in all, a fine performance.