Friday 25 August 2023

Prom 50: large-scale drama from Allan Clayton, Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings in Handel's Samson

Handel: Samson - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)
Handel: Samson - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)

George Frideric Handel: Samson; Allan Clayton, Jacquelyn Stucker, Joélle Harvey, Jess Dandy, Brindley Sherratt, Jonathan Lemalu, Philharmonic Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Allan Clayton is towering in the title role, in a large-scale performance from soloists, chorus and orchestra that fills the Royal Albert Hall magnificently

Handel's 1743 oratorio Samson was always huge. The uncut original version has significantly over three hours of music, [John Butt's recording lasts 3 hours 24 minutes, see my review] with a towering title role unusually given to a tenor (testament to Handel's confidence in his original tenor, John Beard), and a dramatic arc that reflects the scale Milton's original drama. It was one of his most successful oratorios during his lifetime and Handel tinkered with it from the word go, in order to reduce the length. Perhaps significantly, he cut little of import after Samson's scene with Dalila.

As such, the work has suffered when being revived in modern concert conditions. For the BBC Proms performance at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 August 2023, there was still the need to fill the evening slot and the economics of presenting the work in a performance running well over four hours. Directing the Academy of Ancient Music and Philharmonia Chorus, Laurence Cummings opted for a version true to Handel's revisions in 1743, trimming the work down to around 130 minutes of music. Allan Clayton was Samson with Jacquelyn Stucker as Dalila, Joélle Harvey as the Israelite Woman and Philistine Woman, Jess Dandy was Micah, Brindley Sherratt was Harapha and Jonathan Lemalu was Manoa, with Will Pate (from the choir) as the Messenger.

Handel: Samson - Allan Clayton - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)
Handel: Samson - Allan Clayton - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)

Cummings had opted to 'give it large' in other ways. There was a choir of over 100 singers with an orchestra to match including six oboes, three bassoons and three horns plus a body of some 40 strings. There were two harpsichords (Cummings directed from one and Alastair Ross played the other) with Stephen Farr on organ. The balance, thus, favoured the non-keyboard instruments but this was a compromise worth making, I think, for the chance to hear such a fine performance on a large-scale.

Milton's original drama was written to be read, not acted on the stage. Newburgh Hamilton's libretto sticks closely to Milton (only taking the idea of the initial Philistine festival from the Bible), but changes Milton too, most notably in softening the role of Dalila. Hamilton also introduced the Philistine choruses (the chorus in Milton is Israelite throughout), thus giving Handel the sort of contrast he liked, which comes out most notably in the double chorus of Philistines and Israelites. 

It is perhaps worth noting, that Handel frames the music in a way which makes the Philistines as approachable as the Israelites, something lacking in Milton, who evidently hated the Philistines. Nor does Handel follow Milton's moral tone with his hatred of sin, Dalila is a more complex, sympathetic character. Evidently Mendelssohn was rather shocked by her music, as detailed in a somewhat priggish letter to Sterndale Bennett in 1839.

A consequence of the work's cleaving to Milton is that the role of Samson is more passive than in Saint-Saens' opera. Here, the drama comes from the blind Samson's interactions with his father, his former lover and with the Philistine's blustering champion. His final heroic act takes place off stage, and the character's final air, 'Thus when the sun' is a long way from heroic derring-do. Allan Clayton was perhaps almost the ideal Samson, he had the heft and stamina for the role whilst also possessing the ability to spin a strong bright vocal line, mobile where necessary, allied to some fine phrasing indeed and an ability to make the role remarkably intimate.

'Total eclipse!' was stark and stylish, but expressively intimate at times, whilst 'Why does the God of Israel sleep' was lithe, mobile and very vivid. His air to Dalila, 'Your charms to ruin led the way' combined bitter words with beautifully sung music, as if the music was indicating the pull that Dalila's charms still had. And that last air was finely sung indeed, no bluster at all, with a haunting middle section.

His duet with Jacquelyn Stucker's Dalila, 'Traitor/Traitress to love' was fast and vivid, a rightful climax to a powerful scene, whilst his duet with Brindley Sherratt's Harapha was similarly urgent. But it was in the recitatives that Clayton really brought out the character. Clayton's diction was exemplary and we hardly needed the printed text, whilst his expressivity was paramount here.

Handel: Samson - Jacquelyn Stucker - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)
Handel: Samson - Jacquelyn Stucker - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)

Jacquelyn Stucker made a very stylish Dalila indeed, both in terms of looks and sound. And she combined this with a lovely warmth, imbuing the character with an element of sympathy. She and Joélle Harvey blended stylishly in the duet 'My faith and truth'. But what I liked also was that in her airs, 'With plaintive note' and 'To fleeting pleasure', the musical, virtuoso qualities were tempered by a sense that the words here were very pointed, and this carried over into the strong words of her final recitative, 'Thou are more deaf to pray'rs than winds or seas'.

Jess Dandy made a rather earnest and intense Micah, always rather anxious. The role, though substantial, is rather less of a character than the others in the work as Hamilton created it from words which Milton gives to the Israelite chorus, and thus Hamilton remained true to Milton's spirit whilst opening up the drama. Dandy impressed with the sober, seriousness that she brought, allied to lovely dark, rich vocal tone including her fine chest register. One of the highlights were her Act Two air, 'Return, O God of hosts!' and here Cummings really leveraged the contrasts between the intimacy of a soloist and the drama of a large chorus. Whilst Dandy's performance was expressive, her words were somewhat lacking and did not carry well in the auditorium.

Joélle Harvey was both the Philistine Woman and the Israelite Woman (there is no equivalent male figure in this version). She sang throughout with elegance, beginning with a stylish account 'Ye men of Gaza', and ending (with different hair-style and different frock) with a truly brilliant version of 'Let the Bright Seraphim' which made a fine climax to the evening.

Brindley Sherratt made a charismatic Harapha, trenchant in his Act Two scene, delivering the words with relish, whilst in Act Three in his scene with Samson, both Sherratt and Clayton bristled magnificently. Yet Sherratt sang with a nice command of style too, there was no bluster in his tone just his manner. As Samson's father, Manoa, Jonathan Lemalu was warm and dignified. Lemalu's approach was quite restrained, even in his opening dramatic recitative, 'Oh miserable change!', but this built throughout the performance, culminating in a finely touching account of 'How willing my paternal love'.

From the opening notes of the first chorus, the fast and brilliant 'Awake the trumpet's lofty sound', the Philharmonia Chorus impressed. They made Act One end on a positive note with a strong account of the finale chorus, whilst Act Two ended in a more complex manner as the chorus' vividly urgent 'To song and Dance we give the day' gave way to the great double chorus hymning both Dagon and Jehovah. This was grand indeed, but Cummings also brought out the underlying dance-rhythm of the music. In Act Three, 'With thunder arm'd' was bravura indeed, with the chorus seemingly following Cummings' fast pace with ease. The long elegy at the end was dignified, moving and rather intimate, but of course everything ended with that brilliant account of 'Let the bright Serpahim' taken at quite a lick.

Handel: Samson - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)
Handel: Samson - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)

The orchestra was on terrific form, responding with relish to Cummings' quite brisk speeds. Handel's orchestrations here are full of colour and movement, and we had that in plenty, from the vivid colours of horns and oboes in the overture to the restrained dignity of the Dead March with its two flutes. 

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