Wednesday 15 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Samson at the Usher Hall, or, An Evening of HIP Handel

I'm generally a fan of Handel's operas and oratorios, and I was also looking forward to hearing the Dunedin Consort for the first time, especially after the recent furore over the cuts to their funding (later I think reversed). This was a very strong evening, though I still retain some personal doubts about aspects of historically informed performance.

This typically epic oratorio follows the Biblical story of Samson. Strikingly, though, much of that saga has taken place by the time the work opens. Samson has thus already been betrayed by Dalila, had his hair shorn, and is languishing in prison. The bulk of the three acts here are therefore concerned with everybody's lamentations about this and worrying about what is going to happen next, until Samson finally pulls down the Philistine temple (off-stage) in Act III. There are thus some issues with dramatic tension. It was interesting to compare this with Saul, which I saw at Glyndebourne last week. But in addition the emotional dilemmas of the characters are less compelling than in, say, a Handel opera like Ariodante. In this performance, a decision was also taken to retain the many lengthy recitatives. I wasn't wholly convinced by this - there are some nice moments, but the text adapted from Milton amongst others is not the best Handel ever set, the music is not particularly interesting, and these sections further slow up the dramatic momentum.

Fortunately, in the arias, and occasional duets there's a lot of wonderful music. What particularly interested me was the structural variety. There is some use of da capo aria here, but also more shortened forms, and sections labelled Accompagnato forming a more dramatic recitative. Also worthy of note are the occasional use of duets (all beautifully performed by well matched voices), and brief sections of mesmerising unaccompanied solo. Highlights for me musically were the Philistine Woman's opening aria, the Dalila-Samson sequence in Act 2 and some fine contributions from the giant Harapha towards the conclusion.

The solo line up featured several outstanding performers. Louise Alder made the most of her all-too brief appearances at the start and end of the piece as the Philistine and Israelite Women. I was impressed by her performance with the John Wilson Orchestra at Aldeburgh back in June and similarly wowed here. Sophie Bevan has to wait until Act Two to appear as Dalila and disappears again sadly rapidly, but sang superbly. Both brought a lovely character to their parts, and delivered the ornamented lines with seeming effortlessness. David Soar's rich bass well suited Harapha, and Matthew Brook was a nicely characterised Manoa. I had a few more doubts about Paul Appleby's Samson. At the middle and top his performance was strong and there were some beautiful, heart-tugging moments, but in the lower lying sections he didn't always come across the orchestra and overall I felt the part could have done with a little more heft. I was also not wholly convinced by Alice Coote's Micah. Again there were moments when the voice showed a rich, full tone, but elsewhere phrases often seemed to tail off, and the voice often sounded to me, but perhaps it was an acoustical quirk, a bit underpowered.

The Dunedin Consort played with commitment and character throughout, under the expert command of John Butt. Their attack in some of the more dramatic moments was especially notable, also the ability to produce those sharp emphatic chords that Handel sometimes demands. The Consort's singers sang always with beauty - the more introspective moments in particular standing out. On a few occasions a small female trio joined with a soloist, and the effect each time was magical. But I did retain a couple of reservations. Perhaps my memory is playing me tricks, but I still don't feel I've ever heard a period band in Handel who brought quite the same verve and character that Les Talons Lyriques found when I heard them in Ariodante at the Barbican some years back. Secondly, I did miss the power a larger chorus can bring to a big climactic Handel chorus - especially after the Glyndebourne Saul last week, one of the best features of which were those very choruses. Here the smaller forces just didn't seem to me to be quite able to produce the heft that I'd have liked. Clearly I'm still struggling to fully embrace historically informed performance.

One other historical element was introduced by Butt - the inclusion of movements from Handel's Organ Concertos played during part of each intervals. It was rather pleasant to hear these sounds wafting out into the foyer as I ate my salad but on the whole I'm inclined to think that the abandonment of such a practice is probably for the best - in a performance of this length I was ready for a little musical break.

Towards the end, some slight weariness after this four hour epic was assuaged by a glorious account of Let the bright seraphim from Alder and the ensemble (including a very fine solo trumpet contribution from, I think, Paul Sharp). As Butt slowed his forces for a grand, emphatic account of the final bars I was almost persuaded by the smaller scale.

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