Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mighty cast brings down the house at H&H's Samson

Detail from Rembrandt's The Blinding of Samson

I think that when it came to Handel's Samson, the Handel and Haydn Society simply knew it had to hire some serious vocal muscle.

How else to explain the stunning line-up that led this oft-overlooked oratorio, which played to a thrilled crowd at Symphony last weekend? For as Hub Review readers know (by now only too well), my persistent complaint against this local leader in period performance has been the variability of its soloists. The H&H chorus (as led by artistic director Harry Christophers) is always a wonder, and the orchestra is usually superb; it's the hired hands who sometimes aren 't up to the home team's standard.

This time, however, everything locked into place - with tenor Joshua Ellicott's forceful performance shining like the brightest of ornaments on the hood of a gleaming, well-oiled machine.  Ellicott didn't just fill Symphony Hall with his incandescent, seemingly effortless sound; he also broke many a hardened heart with his compelling take on this tortured text.

Milton before his blindness.
For Samson is drawn (by way of librettist Newburgh Hamilton) from Milton's tragedy Samson Agonistes, the poet's last major work, and one that behind a severe rhetorical screen all but throbs with personal pathos.  For Milton himself was as blind as Samson by the time of its composition - and like his hero, no doubt felt he had been cast down among the Philistines. An outspoken republican during the English Civil War, the author was forced into hiding upon the Restoration, and for a time his writings were publicly burnt - indeed, he was only saved from imprisonment by influential friends (Andrew Marvell, a former protégé, among them).  No doubt Milton felt, as he cowered in the grim new British landscape, that he and his nation were both "eyeless in Gaza," as his Samson famously puts it.

Music aficionados know, of course, that Handel, too, would eventually lose his sight  - so there's an intense poignancy to the greatest arias in Samson, which confront the hero's blindness with devastating honesty.  But Milton also shapes and personalizes the biblical material (from the Book of Judges) in other ways; indeed, his own checkered marital career (the first of his three wives fled her stern husband after only a month) no doubt colored his depiction of Delilah (here Dalila) - who is rendered as a repentant wife rather than lover (hmmm), but is spurned anyway, as her attractiveness, like that of all women, is clearly a spiritual snare (H&H saw fit to trim the most sexist moments in the script, and I don't think anyone missed them).

That aside, Milton had it in mind to create in Samson Agonistes a Christian extension of the work of Aeschylus and Sophocles - and Newburgh's libretto, despite a few alterations, largely honors that intent. Indeed, in a way, given that music suffused Attic drama in a manner that we can never quite understand, Handel's oratorio may count as the closest thing to latter-day Greek tragedy that we have.  

Joshua Ellicott
Certainly the terrific cast at H&H limned the drama of the text superbly. As noted, tenor Ellicott (at right) was nothing less than riveting, delivering a fierce, keening power that sometimes conjured Milton's own rhetorical voice, as well as literally the darkest depths of despair (in the terrifying "Total eclipse") or the harshest heights of rage ("Why does the God of Israel sleep?"). Finally, of course, Samson finds God's light, as well as a transcendent calm - which Ellicott also captured exquisitely as Samson made his way toward his doom in the temple of the Philistines.

He was supported at every step, however, by a strikingly talented cast. The sparkling Joélle Harvey easily held her own against Samson's attacks as the still-loving Dalila (even if she was eventually driven to frustrated pique by her husband's abuse), while bass-baritone Matthew Brook balanced the hero's fury with a mournful dignity as Manoah, his aging father. Meanwhile rising star Dashon Burton, a newcomer to H&H, brought a resonant authority to the role of the Philistine Harapha (Milton's invention, to serve as a dramatic foil for Samson - and here a wonderful vocal foil for Ellicott). Likewise mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers, though perhaps not as compellingly varied as the other soloists, colored the narrative role of Micah with a rich, autumnal tint. All told, this was the strongest group of soloists I've ever seen H&H field. And needless to say, the chorus did itself proud under Christophers' sensitive direction, as did the singers plucked from it for supporting roles: Stefan Reed made clean, pointed work of the Messenger, while soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad (who recently made a splash over at Boston Baroque) sang down the sparkling brass in the work's best-known aria, "Let the bright seraphim." 

Which leads me (if you'll pardon a rather mixed archaic metaphor) to the Achilles' heel of the mighty Samson - the small number of vocal show-stoppers across its substantial length, and the echoes of earlier works that drift through it. The resources of this cast, however, often compensated for that; and Handel himself supports the action with some of his most inventive orchestrations: the collapse of the temple (which happens "offstage") is brilliantly evoked through slashing strokes among the strings, while the "Dead March" that accompanies Samson's fallen body is among the composer's most memorable (indeed, you could argue he largely "remembered" it from his own Saul).  The text goes on after this natural close to a few needless exultations; but despite these concluding cries of triumph, it leaves you with a remarkable sense of depth, gravity, and loss. A sobering occasion Samson definitely was - though also indisputably a triumph.

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