Handel’s dramatic talents as a composer ran to the expansive, in a way that Handel the promoter found tricky so that many of his works were trimmed and edited for later performances. His oratorio Samson is a case in point: after the first performance on 18 February 1743 cuts were being made, and in each revival of the work there were changes. The London Handel Festival gave us a rare chance to hear the complete 1743 version of Handel’s Samson, at St George’s Hanover Square, where Harry Bickett conducted the English Concert with Stuart Jackson as Samson, Sophie Bevan as Dalila, Paula Murrihy as Micah, Matthew Brook as Manoah, David Shipley as Harapha plus Rachel Redmond and Gwilym Bowen as the various Israelites and Philistines. There was no separate chorus, just three ripieno singers who joined with the soloists to perform the choruses, a practice that Handel seems to have employed when he did not have a chorus available.
Handel’s Samson is one of his few oratorios, Messiah apart, that kept its reputation over the centuries. In part, this is due to the great admiration for Milton’s poetry, though it has to be admitted that Newburgh Hamilton’s libretto raids a remarkable number of other Miltonic sources for its text, not just the play Samson Agonistes. But it is only with the revival of interest in Handel’s dramatic oratorios since the 1950s that we can place Samson in context and realise that, compared to Belshazzar and Saul, this is a remarkably undramatic piece. Handel, Milton, and Hamilton have created a theatre of the mind; Milton’s original play was designed for a moral purpose and to be read privately, and in turning it into an oratorio something of this comes over. Nothing much happens, instead thanks to his series of interactions with his friend Micah, his father, his wife Dalila, and the Philistines’ champion Harapha, we gain access to Samson’s mind and thought processes. And thanks to the original concept of Milton’s play, Samson is on stage throughout – something almost unheard of in 18th-century drama.
Something of the context for this must be owing to the remarkable tenor who created Samson, John Beard. A product of the Chapel Royal who had started working for Handel in his late teens, Beard’s ‘day job’ was as a singer on the London stage, singing songs, but much of his training was with Handel and that the composer wrote such part as Samson for him is a testament to Beard’s dramatic talent. It seems that Beard had a robust, useful voice and up until Handel’s death Beard would continue to sing the more lyric roles alongside the dramatic ones such as Samson and Jephtha (both of which were written for him). What the tenor clearly had was the ability to convey the dramatic moment, and stamina. In 18th-century terms, the role of Samson is remarkable for its size, and for the fact that it is a tenor at all. Outside French tragédie lyrique, operatic tenors tended to play bit parts.
Handel’s casting in Samson was similarly imaginative for the role of Dalila, she was sung by Kitty Clive who was a musical comedy actress who had sung in Thomas Arne’s Alfred. First night reports suggest that she had but a thread of a voice yet what she did with the words was ravishing; clearly Handel was more interested in dramatic truth, the combination of word and music, than sheer vocal pyrotechnics.
Stuart Jackson made an impressive and powerful Samson. An imposing figure, Jackson’s height meant that we could see him clearly despite the poor sight-lines at St George’s, and called to mind the great tenor Jon Vickers who brought a similar physical heroic sense to Samson (in both Handel and Saint-Saens). Jackson’s attention to the words was superb, not just his impressive diction but the way he shaped them. There is a lot of recitative in this role, and Jackson made us believe every word of it. Samson’s faith in his personal God was palpable, as was the need to expiate his sin, slowly working his way towards to climactic moment (which of course happens off stage). Jackson opened ‘Total eclipse’ with a daringly quiet unaccompanied phrase, only developing as the orchestra joined him and throughout, for all the occasional heroics, there was an intensity to his performance. Dramatically, things took wing in the scenes with Sophie Bevan’s Dalila and David Shipley’s Harapha, but throughout Jackson seemed in clear control of the arc of the character’s development, leading to a beautifully thoughtful account of his final aria.
Samson’s scene with Dalila is the closest the work comes to opera. Both Jackson and Sophie Bevan ran with this and the scene fair crackled. Jackson’s way with the words was vivid, and I loved his spitting out of ‘Out, thou hyaena!’. Bevan for her part was intelligently seductive, singing ‘With plaintive notes’ with lovely creamy tone, really capturing the vocal essence of the character, and throughout phrasing the music beautifully, moving from the seductive to the vivid and ending with the terrific duet with Jackson’s Samson. Throughout the work, Handel took a very creative approach to form, and I loved the way he unexpectedly introduces an answering voice (Rachel Redmond as a Philistine Woman) in ‘My faith and true’. That Sophie Bevan is very visibly pregnant gave an added piquancy to the drama, the idea of Dalila visibly demonstrating the fruits of her and Samson’s amorous past.
Micah’s role serves Milton’s original purpose, to provide a foil for Samson and to demonstrate the true religious/moral path. If you are not careful, some of what he sings can come preciously close to sententious twaddle in a modern performance. Not with Paula Murrihy. Yes, we were aware that particular moments were dramatically unnecessary, but we believed every word she sang, and each phrase was beautifully, intelligently, and emotionally shaped. It helped that she sang with warm, well-modulated tone and her contribution to the final mourning sequence for Samson provided a movingly dignified conclusion to a very fine performance indeed.
Matthew Brook brought a lovely frankness and openness to Samson’s father, Manoah. His aria at the beginning of Act Two was beautifully shaped and poised, whilst throughout the warmth and directness brought home Manoah’s open character, ending in Act Three with his moving final aria. David Shipley’s Harapha was the epitome of the braggart, wonderfully vivid and sung with a gloriously dark and resonant voice, matching tone quality to the drama. Harapha’s scene with Samson is quite short, but it brought a lovely moment of vivid drama.
Stuart Jackson sang Samson from in front of the orchestra, but all the other soloists were ranged behind the orchestra so that they could sing the choruses. Unfortunately, this meant that Paula Murrihy sang the role of Micah from this distant position, but both Sophie Bevan and David Shipley came forward for their scenes as Dalila and Harapha, to the vast improvement of the drama.
Handel originally wrote Samson in 1741 but revised it in 1742 once he had returned from Dublin (where he had premiered Messiah) and he returned to London to a larger company who had to be found roles, so that Samson acquired all sorts of unnamed roles. Frankly, these inhibit the dramatic flow (particularly in Act One), but it is valuable to be reminded of composers’ first thoughts and if you could settle to the slower dramatic pace there was some terrific music. Rachael Redmond impressed every time she popped up (as the Israelite Woman and as the Philistine Woman), but it was in her final aria, the show’s big hit number, ‘Let the bright seraphim’ that Redmond really showed her Handelian chops, and I do hope to hear her in a bigger role soon. Gwilym Bowen brought a combination of lyricism and vibrant tone to his arias as the Israelite Man, Philistine Man and Messenger, really bringing out the drama of this latter’s long dialogue reluctantly describing Samson’s death.
Thanks to the commitment of the team of soloists, there was never a moment’s doubt about having the choruses sung by just nine singers. The results had a terrific immediacy and in the big moments, there was grandeur too. The different vocal presence, nine solo voices instead of massed voices, made for a fascinating series of textures and balance was always superb. Also, the singers seemed to be having great fun as well, and this feeling of engagement with the text and the music counted.
Handel’s orchestra for Samson is relatively expansive (oboes, bassoon, trumpets, horns, timpani), with the English Concert managing to fit everything in St George’s with difficulty. Frankly, the sound from our seats (in a side aisle, under the balcony) was not ideal and there were acoustically muddy moments and perhaps rather too much of the terrific horns (who were standing just in front of us). But throughout, the playing was exemplary with lots of fine instrumental solos, including leader Tuomo Suni’s fine duet with Dalila.
This was a long evening, and St George’s is not the most comfortable of venues. But it was very well-paced (two intervals, thankfully) and from the first moments, the drama had us hooked. This was a wonderfully engaged evening, bringing out both music and text in just the right ways, a superb tribute to both Handel and Milton.
George Frideric Handel: Samson (1743 version)
Stuart Jackson (Samson), Sophie Bevan (Dalila), Paula Murrihy (Micah), Matthew Brook (Manoha), David Shipley (Harapha), Rachel Redmond, Gwilym Bowen, The English Concert (Harry Bicket, director) London Handel Festival at St George’s Hanover Square, London; 13th October 2021.