Royal Albert Hall
George Frideric Handel: Samson
Lisa Milne (Dalila), Natasha Marsh (Philistine Woman/Israelite Woman), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Micah), Tom Randle (Samson), Matthew Vine (Messenger), Michael George (Manoah), John Tomlinson (Harapha)
The Sixteen, The Symphony of Harmony and Invention
Harry Christophers (conductor)
This performance of Handel's Samson was the final instalment in the Old Testament strand of this year's Proms. The compact period forces of the Sixteen contrasted with John Eliot Gardiner's more expansive Monteverdi Choir in the earlier Israel in Egypt, as did the tragic framework with the linear depiction of plagues followed by the triumphalism of the second part of Israel in Egypt. In between, we had Mendelssohn's Elijah, with massive forces directed by Kurt Masur, similar to Samson in its focus on a tormented central figure but dense with religiosity and pastiche in spite of Masur's unsentimental take on it.
Samson, based on a strongly Humanist tragedy-for-reading by Milton, has the familiar matched choruses of Philistines and Israelites from Handel's early Biblical oratorios, but, foreshadowing Theodora, there is a strong ethical contrast between hedonism and spirituality, not just a cheerful assumption of us-and-them antagonism. Samson himself is a tragic hero, as understood by Milton (who probably had Oedipus at Colonus in mind, although Samson's chains also suggest Prometheus bound), a static and apparently ruined figure who deals with the people and events that have brought him to where he is, until the final action which makes him into a hero in the Greek sense, a figure who in death brings strength to his people. Both the scriptural figure and Milton's are related to the Greek Herakles, another appetite-ridden force-of-nature thug who is translated into a culture hero because of his perceived depth of suffering. Handel and Newburgh Hamilton, who adapted Milton's text, achieve a fine balance between the national-ethical contrast and the powerful emotional focus on the central figure which, as in Jephtha does not depend on rooting for one side for its impact. Some of Samson's infantile and comic attributes are transferred to the Philistine champion Harapha, Milton's invention gleefully enhanced with idiot-bass arias by Handel, who is a comparatively decorous reminder of what Samson was.
Strength takes many forms, and nobody would pick a fight with John Tomlinson's characteristically robust Harapha. But the main strength of this performance was in the luminous work of the Sixteen (in an Albert-Hall sized special edition of twenty six), impeccably clear in words and music, and very moving in the final scenes of mourning replaced by the uplift of "Let the bright Seraphim". Tom Randle's Samson was deeply dramatic, comparable to his superb performance as Bazajet in Tamerlano, another essentially Stoic figure. His vocal production might not have been up to the caverns of the hall, but he is far from the only singer of whom that is true. Lisa Milne was a splendid bitch of a Dalila, a reminder that the format also has something to do with the elegiac lover of Eclogue 1, done in by an unworthy mistress. You wished Dalila had some proper music, but Milne had plenty of fun. Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Micah, a minor prophet from the next chapter of the bible bumped up to speak for the Israelites, and Michael George as Manoah, Samson's old father, were sympathetic and musical.
The Symphony of Harmony and Invention were, like the Sixteen, well prepared and in perfect command of the both the music and the acoustics.