Why don’t we hear Susanna, Handel’s oratorio on the Bible's apochryphal tale of Susanna and the Elders, more often? Sure, it does not have the big chorus numbers to interest the choral societies, but its outing at the Göttingen International Handel Festival was a revelation, showing that the musical development of character and plot is more than dramatic enough to engage an audience.

Emily Fons © Dario Acosta
Emily Fons
© Dario Acosta

It is the story of a virtuous wife who, during her husband’s absence, rejects the advances of a couple of older men who fancy her. In revenge, they falsely accuse her of adultery and she is condemned to death. They are confounded, however, by the prophet Daniel, who denounces them and saves Susanna in time for her husband’s return.

The structure has a satisfying narrative arc, starting and finishing with the happy couple duetting, albeit with a ghastly experience for the wife in the middle. And the musical variation adds further levels of complexity. The opening chorus, lamenting the continuing Babylonian exile, is almost languid and contrasts with the dance-like quality of the spouses’ first duet. Susanna’s attendant has two airs, the first in a jolly sea-shanty style, the second a heart-rending lament for a lover who died young. Other airs recall the style of ballad opera. The emotional temperature in the music increases till, in the final scene, the final chorus lauds the preciousness of a virtuous wife.

The downside is the libretto which, although containing some poetry, boasts clunking rhyming couplets of the ‘moon in June’ variety, so obvious they are signalled almost from the first word.

This performance made a strong case for Susanna to be better known. Christopher Lowrey was outstanding as Joachim, effortless in his vocal uxoriousness. His air, on hearing news of his wife’s trial, was urgent, driven onwards by the lower strings.

Although less powerful than perhaps is desirable on her lowest notes, Emily Fons more than made up for it in the great stonking showcase that is her last air of the oratorio. On the way, her ornamentation soared and shimmered through her emotional rollercoaster to its happy conclusion. The spouses’ voices were well-balanced in their duets.

As Susanna’s attendant, Ciara Hendrick managed to sound subtly different in her two contrasting airs. She doubled as Daniel, a part sung by a boy treble in the first, 1749, performance and, as such, she was delightfully presumptuous and peremptory in exacting retribution on the elders, as well as creating yet a different sound.

Ah yes, the Elders – Colin Balzer, recruited at short notice (because of illness) as First Elder, was superb in his sanctimonious lechery. Singers sing on vowels, but he lingered, luxuriated in the ‘l’ of love, casting on it a lecherous, leering quality more akin to lust. In his final air, the hypocrisy of his sorrow at Susanna’s death sentence was delicious.

His partner in crime as Second Elder, Raimond Nolte, also doubled – as Chelsias, Susanna’s father – and conveyed the contrasting characters well.

FestspielOrchesterGöttingen was on top form for conductor Laurence Cummings, with some sweet and delicate string-playing as well as powerful work from double bass and cello, driving the music inexorably to its conclusion. This was not a performance that the audience is going to forget in a hurry.

*****