Handel’s Samson: Larger than Life

United StatesUnited States Handel, Samson: Soloists and Chorus of the American Classical Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan (Conductor), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 4.3.2014 (SSM)

Samson,Thomas Cooley, Tenor
Dalila,                      Megan Chartrand, Soprano
Micah,                     Virginia Warnken, Mezzo-soprano
Manoa,                    John Taylor Ward, Bass
Harapha,                  Andrew Padgett, Bass
Philistine Woman,    Marcy Richardson, Soprano
Virgin,                     Sarah Brailey, Soprano
Philistine Man,         Tommy Wazelle, Tenor
Messenger,              Marc Day, Tenor
Israelite Woman,      Sarah Brailey, Soprano[table]

Music used as a means of personal expression or as an outlet for pouring out one’s heart and soul was rarely a reason for composing prior to Beethoven and Schubert. Now and then there was a composer so overcome by emotional turmoil that music was an act of catharsis. Gesualdo, the 16th-century Prince of Venosa who killed his wife and her lover, wrote madrigals of extreme dissonance and darkness that came from his repentant soul. However, before the 19th century most composers wrote music as a commodity for a paying audience (Handel), a praying audience (Bach) or at the request of royalty for whom they worked (Haydn). These composers got up every morning, went to work and then came home and told their wives that they had had a busy day. “What did you do today?” “Oh, I finally finished that B Minor Mass.” Vivaldi claimed that he could compose a piece of music faster than it could be copied out.

 Handel was a shrewd businessman who did what he had to do to earn a living. He struggled with impresarios, prima donnas and theater owners. Arias were added or subtracted to his vocal pieces based upon which singers were available. If he couldn’t write operas when in Rome due to a papal ban, he wrote cantatas or oratorios, often with themes more secular than religious. Later on in London, where he started losing money due to competition from other opera companies, he began writing oratorios based mainly on Biblical themes. Oratorios didn’t require staging, scenery and expensive Italian vocalists.

 Special attention is given to Handel for his Messiah and there may be some truth in the stories of inspiration that allowed him to write the whole oratorio in less than a month. But within a week or so after completing Messiah he was already back at work writing Samson.

 Samson is a big oratorio with over 70 numbers lasting almost 3 1/2 hours when performed in its entirety. Nicholas McGegan, who recorded a complete version of the work at a performance in Göttingen in 2009, here cut some aria da capos and parts or all of some recitatives to bring the performance down to the 3-hour range. The orchestra of over 30 instruments and a 24-member chorus were close to the number Handel used at Samson‘s  premier. Although McGegan’s conducting is enthusiastic and committed, he often does not quite get the crisp, bright colors that we’ve come to expect from other Baroque conductors such as William Christie and John Gardner.

It’s not that Handel’s oratorios are easy for the chorus and soloists, but in general they don’t make the demands of his operas. That’s not surprising since the availability of English-speaking singers was limited: Handel often used actors who were not capable  of singing on the level of the top Italian singers, and certainly weren’t comparable to the castrati in his Italian operas. If Samson were an opera, the role of Micah, for example, might have been given to the great Italian castrato Sensisino. Here, Virginia Warnken, whose voice I have admired over the years, needed more pep and energy to breathe life into Micah, a character who came across as somewhat dull and uninspired.

 Tom Cooley, who is featured in McGegan’s recorded performance, was convincing as the conflicted Samson. His voice was somewhat tight for his first few arias, but he loosened up and came into his own in the duet between Samson and Harapha, “Go, baffled coward go.” Andrew Padgett as Harapha gave a fine performance and excelled in the aria, “Honour and arms scorn such a foe.”

 The members of the chorus who came forward as minor characters in the oratorio often sounded better than the principals. Sarah Braily as the Philistine Woman was certainly a match to the excellent Megan Chartland’s Dalila in the lovely echoing duet, “My faith and truth, O Samson, prove.”

 Both the chorus and orchestra were well-balanced with little overpowering of the soloists. A more prominent sound from the brass, when called for, would have added bite to the overall orchestral coloring.

Stan Metzger

 This mini-Handelfest concludes on March 19th with the rarely performed Alceste.