Friday 13 May 2005


St. George's Church, Hanover Square might date from Handel's time, and have been his parish church, but it is an unconscionably difficult place in which to hold a concert. We went to the performance of Samson given by the London Handel Festival on Wednesday. Our seats were in the front row of the balcony and so we had a decent view of the performers, albeit from side on. But I was struck by how few seats would have had a really good view of the performers. And even they were constrained. The choir (some 20 of them) sat in the choir stalls facing each other (not the conductor) and had to turn rather awkwardly to perform in columns (sight lines for the rear most must have been tricky). The orchestra filled the space in front of the chancel leaving almost no room for the soloists. Lawrence Cummings' imaginative solution was to have them move around, utilising various spaces including the pulpit.

The performance itself was superb. Fine, flexible playing from the London Handel Orchestra was marred only by some rather under par horn solos (but then the horn player is having to cope with something which is little more than a length of tubing). The choir was on brilliant form and, when called upon, made a rich noise which belied its chamber size; some of the best moments in the evening were Handel's grand choruses for the Israelites and the brilliant double chorus where both Israelites and Philistines call upon their respective Gods.

The soloists were generally of high calibre too. Most impressive was Catherine Wyne-Rogers, who sang Manoa. Resplendent in a rich, red velvet evening cloak, she managed to make the part into a real character rather than simply appearing as a foil for Samson, as can too often happen. Even though it was a concert performance, you felt her creating a real character. Of course, it helped that she turned in some of the finest solo singing of the evening

As Samson's wife Dalila, Claire Ormshaw was wonderfully wheedling and sexy, completely unphased by her delayed entry into the concert because she was accidentally locked into her dressing room in Sotheby's (I kid you not). Her aria 'With plaintive notes' was a model of how to be sexual without overdoing things.

Both basses managed to make strong characters of their parts. Njal Sparbo was a dignified model as Samson's father Manoa, managing gravitas whilst looking rather young. Whilst Andrew Slater imbued Harapha with a wonderfully bumptious agressiveness whilst never letting the technical aspects of singing Handel slip; I just wished his part had been longer

Angharad Gruffydd Jones, who won the Festival's singing competition in 2004, sang the anonymous Israelite and Philistine women, which meant of course that she got to sing the work's hit number, 'Let the bright seraphim'; which she did beautifully

The title role was taken by young operatic tenor Ashley Catling. His recent performances seem to have been mainly in as an Italian lyric operatic tenor and I suspect that in repertoire he may be a figure to watch. In Handel, he seemed less at home. In the livlier, more outgoing arias, such as 'Why does the God of Israel sleep' he managed to generate excitement. But he seemed to be a little too wedded to his music and in the more important slower numbers, he failed to completely rise to the heroic vein needed. 'Total Eclipse' was a disappointment and it was only towards the very end that he made a really strong impression. This was a shame as with a stronger title role this could have been a completely overwhelming performance.

It was given wonderfully uncut in a new edition from Novello, though the programme notes did not explain whether there were any significant divergences from the previous edition.

It was a long evening and, with only 1 interval, there was some inevitable coming and going between Acts 2 and 3. It was quite a long sit, but it was well worth it

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