Handel's `Samson' takes turn as opera

`Experiment': Choral Arts Society and Tom Hall succeed in giving oratorio a new musical persona.

March 27, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The notion of performing one of Handel's oratorios as an opera may strike some as strange. But that is exactly how the Baltimore Choral Arts Society presented Handel's "Samson" in two performances Tuesday and Wednesday at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills.

Little wonder, therefore, that the society's music director, Tom Hall, may have expressed some trepidation in his program notes in reference to the production as "an experiment for us."

He needn't have feared. The experiment was a brilliant success. Handel's "Samson" worked better, much better, on the stage than that staple of the operatic repertory, Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila" -- which to many opera- goers has always sounded too much like an oratorio.

Actually, the potential for the success of such a project was considerable. While Saint-Saens did not have the dramatic instincts of a true opera composer, Handel is among history's greatest writers of music for the stage. He only turned to the oratorio genre when the passion for Italian opera in England, his adopted country, seriously waned.

Always one with a keen eye on box office receipts, Handel turned himself from the 18th century's most successful opera composer into its most successful composer of oratorios.

But while one may not be able to imagine Handel's "Messiah" in dramatic form, "Samson" is another story. The composer's librettist, Newburgh Hamilton, based his text on Milton's tragic verse drama, "Samson Agonistes."

While the great poet never intended it to be performed, his poem is, nevertheless, suited to operatic treatment as much by its form as by its subject. The poem's subject -- as in most of Milton's poems -- is about stasis.

Its plot is also static, but it does at least consist of a series of actions: various confrontations between Samson, his Israelite supporters (including his father, Manoa) and his enemies, including the seductive Dalila and the arrogant Philistine strongman, Harapha.

And the static nature of the action would have been no hindrance to Handel for operatic treatment -- had he so chosen -- because he was a composer in whose operas the depiction of character and the expression of feeling were always of paramount importance.

Even with that said, however, much credit is due director John Lehmeyer and lighting designer Doug Nelson for the intelligence and sense they demonstrated in a staging that resembled those used for semi-abstract plays such as those by Yeats or Beckett. Choreographer Kimberly Mackin showed imagination and skill in the deployment of the dancers in her company.

But -- and it's a big but -- none of these efforts would have mattered without the musical excellence of Hall's conducting and the singing of his soloists and his chorus.

Hall's vigorous musical leadership conveyed Handelian grandeur with warmth and panache and without sacrificing clarity of texture.

The first-rate cast included tenor Gran Wilson, as an untiringly powerful Samson; soprano Sara Seglem, as a seductive Dalila; mezzo-soprano Deidra Palmour, bold and tender in the pants role of Micah; baritone John Shirley-Quirk as a touching and eloquent Manoa; bass Thom King, as a powerfully projected (as well as nasty) Harapha; and soprano Faith Okkema, who projected the coloratura of the Israelite Woman with silvery radiance.

The clear articulation of Hall's chorus was matched by the crisp and attractive playing of his orchestra.

Pub Date: 3/27/99

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