fri 14/06/2024

Prom 50: Samson, Academy of Ancient Music review - a gradual build in musical and dramatic intensity | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 50: Samson, Academy of Ancient Music review - a gradual build in musical and dramatic intensity

Prom 50: Samson, Academy of Ancient Music review - a gradual build in musical and dramatic intensity

Samson, in many ways, is a role that seems made for tenor Allan Clayton

Introspective clarity: Allan Clayton in the title roleSisi Burn

1743 was the year in which Handel presented both the Messiah and Samson to Londoners – and for most audience members the merits of one clearly eclipsed the other. Fascinatingly it was Samson that was seen to be the more successful – after breaking box office records, with eight performances between its opening on 18 February and the end of March, it remained highly in demand for nine subsequent seasons.

In an evening that built in both dramatic and musical intensity, Laurence Cummings and the Academy of Ancient Music took on the challenges of Handel’s epic about the Old Testament’s most uncompromising warrior. Samson remains one of Handel’s greatest but also most problematic works; inspired by Milton’s Samson Agonistes, the libretto ignores the hero’s early days of superhuman victories and controversial seductions to focus on the dark and depressed days of his imprisonment.

Samson, in many ways, is a role that seems made for tenor Allan Clayton. Recently a US critic raved that “Few opera singers can make their eyes look so dementedly wild”, citing his performances in Brett Dean’s Hamlet and Britten’s Peter Grimes as examples of the intensity of his range. In this performance, he was deliberately more muted at the outset, exploring the blinded Samson’s tortured emotions with a combination of clarity and profound introspection. One phrase would ring out with anguish, the next would be softened by echoing despair, clearly conveying the plight of an individual who saw himself beyond redemption.

The musical drama of the opening is propelled by the contrast between Samson’s wretchedness and the festive exuberance of his captors, the Philistines. In the first of her dazzling appearances in multiple roles, the American soprano Joélle Harvey’s voice effortlessly took flight across the auditorium as she summoned the men of Gaza to bring “The merry pipe and pleasing string” (pictured below right). By contrast, as Samson’s confidante, Micah, contralto Jess Dandy brought pathos to the action with a voice that was as rich as it was full of shadow. In a quietly resonant ending to the first act, Clay’s carefully nuanced delivery of the “Total eclipse!” aria was heightened by the beautifully sustained emotion of the Philharmonia Chorus’s response as the Israelites invoking God’s gift of light to the world.

Even so, at this point it felt as if the evening wasn’t entirely living up to the promise of its impressive components. The normally excellent Academy of Ancient Music had sounded a little frazzled at the start, and though that quickly adjusted itself under Cummings’ lively direction – in which he almost danced as he conducted from the harpsichord – overall there was a slight sense of hollowness.

However, once we returned from the interval, the force of the drama started to intensify its grip. As Samson's father, Manoa, the New Zealand-born Samoan bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu marked the shift in tone with his exhortation that his son should "Trust in God!" that he would be freed. While Dandy’s ‘Return, oh God of hosts!’ picked up once more on the introspective angst, it was swiftly and amusingly succeeded by the disapproving downward swoop of her voice as she observed the approach of Dalila. Newburgh Hamilton’s libretto – judiciously cut by historical dramaturgs Stephanie Fayerman and Ruth Smith to shear approximately half an hour off the running time – initially presents Dalila in deceptively saccharine mode as she begs Samson to “From forth this prison-house come home to me”. Though there is gently suppressed outrageousness there too – in one of her lines she declares, “Life is not lost, though lost your sight; let other senses taste delight”. Soprano Jacquelyn Stucker (above left) emphasised Dalila’s carefully manufactured elegance as she appeared, first above the choir and then on stage, in a svelte black evening dress. Her voice deftly mirrored the chameleon-shift of emotions as she went from the feigned sweetness of “Thus coos the turtle left alone,” to the murderous swipe of the duet, “Traitor to love!”

A new highlight of the evening arrived with bass Brindley Sherratt as the macho Philistine, Harapha. On top of the clear musical articulation which gave appropriate punch to his delivery as he taunted Samson, his vivid enunciation heightened the drama of Hamilton’s poetry; when he talked about Samson’s eyes “put out”, his emphasis of the “t”s made you feel the violence of the original act. In the confrontation between the two, Clayton gave full throttle to his character’s building rage. The duet between Samson and Harapha, “Go baffled coward, go,” was both resonant and magnificent, while the complex drama was stoked by the chorus in the quiet beauty and pathos of “Hear, Jacob’s God, Jehovah, hear!”.

The biggest moment for the orchestra is in A Symphony of Horror and Confusion in which cascading scales and chromaticised melodies convey the dramatic collapse of the temple as Samson pulls it down. The Academy of Ancient Music shone here, with the paradoxical flair and precision it brought to the emotional chaos. Joélle Harvey’s return as an Israelite woman confirmed her performance as a clear highlight of the evening. Her goosebump-inducing delivery of “Let the bright Seraphim”, picked up by the chorus, provided a resonant end to this ultimate story of Sturm und Drang.  

@Hallibee1

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