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Handel, Susanna. Oratorio In Three Acts : Soloists. Les Arts Florissants, Willian Christie (conductor) Barbican Hall London 25. 10. 2009 (GD)


Sophie Karthauser: Susana
Max Emanuel Cencic: Joacim
Maarten Koningsberger: Chelsias
William Burden: First Elder
Alan Ewing: Second Elder
David DQ Lee: Daniel
Emmanuelle Negri: Attendant
Ludovic Provost: A judge

Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, conductor.

This was a delight from start to finish. Susanna, premiered at Covent Garden in February 1749, is one of Handel's least heard/known oratorios. Although the great Handel scholar Winton Dean was cool in his judgement of the work recommending extensive cuts, it is not absolutely clear why it has continued to be neglected. In a sense all of Handel's oratorios are hybrid works in  that they all include elements of opera and oratorio, something true of even the greatest of of them, 'Saul' and 'Samson' for example. But with Susanna the grand oratorio style choruses are fewer with a balance in favour of opera, both in the stylistic, musical sense, and more importantly, in the dramatic or narrative sense. Susanna also offers us a great deal of comedy (even 'black' comedy in more recent terms), irony, and genuine 'seria' elements, sometimes approaching the tragic. All this is enough to recommend the work to today’s audiences familiar, as they are with forms of modern, or post-modern irony. And indeed the main themes in Susanna, to do with sexual addiction, pathological lust, sexual assault,  corruption in high places and the shallowness of manipulated public opinion, have the ring of 'business as usual' for our own times.

The allegory of Susanna and the Elders comes from the Apocrypha ( or Daniel.13 in the Vulgate) and has been made famous by painters as diverse as Tintoretto, Titian and Rembrandt, to name just a few. Basically, the story is about the virtuous young woman Susanna, who is pursued by two Elders both Judges of the exiled Jewish community and 'waxen old in wickedness' we are told. As Susanna bathes naked (in the allegory, not in tonight’s semi-staged performance) in her garden stream, her innocence is intruded upon by the two wanton old men. How far they get in their sexual, predatory assault is not made clear in either Handel's work, or in the biblical text, although in some of the visual depictions a violent rape was attempted before Susanna repulsed them.  Full of resentment and sexual humiliation/anger, the Elders concoct a viciously mendacious story to the effect that they caught her 'in flagrante' with 'the youthful partner of her stol'n embrace'. Susanna is accused of adultery and is condemned to death after a show trial based on the false evidence of the Elders. But justice re-emerges through the intervention of the youth Daniel who springs from the crowd to challenge the Elders on   the consistency of their accusations. Under cross-examination, they give contradictory accounts of the exact location of the adulterous act ('under which tree'). The case against Susanna collapses and they in turn are sentenced to death.

After an overture which begins with a solemn introduction leading to a spirited fugal allegro (depicting the tragi-comedic tone of the oratorio perhaps) the first act introduces us to Susanna. Her dignified father Chelsias tells us that he raised his daughter to fear the Lord, the baritone Maarten Koningsberger as Chelsias was admirable in his first F minor aria 'who fears the Lord may dare all foes', and while Sophie Karthauser's Susanna sometines stretched her soprano limits, overall she radiated, both vocally and gesturally Susanna’s innocence and confusion. In the end Susanna, through being sexually and legally abused, learns much more about the injustices, dangers and misfortunes of  life as a wiser woman than she could have anticipated. Susanna’s basic virtues are confirmed by her well-meaning if rather naive husband Joacim, who has to leave her undefended whilst away on business - an absence of which the scheming Elders take full advantage. Counter Tenor Max Emanuel Cencic as Joacim sang excellently throughout, demonstrating the character’s rather inexperienced wonder in his Act one aria ''When first I saw my lovely maid'.

We do not know who wrote the libretto for either Susanna or Solomon, but from the textual similarity they share with Thomas Morell's Judas Maccabeus and Joshua we have a fairly accurate idea of the characterisations expected by Handel: and it is certain that the two Elders were to be projected as a kind of strange conflation of buffoonery and wickedness. Their Act two recitatives/arias are stylistically full of parody and gauche affirmations of their libidinal pride and excess. The first Elder, excellently characterised by baritone William Burden, sings his G minor 'Ye verdant hills' as a kind of parody of a opera seria scena, but in the style of a sentimental minuet-ballad. From Susanna we certainly have an insight into baroque audiences: they were clearly no strangers to sex and scandal. And even a scholar like Percy Young writing in 1947, described Handels string flourishes in the first Elder’s mock bravura aria ‘When the trumpet' as 'priapic'/ In both the Elders’ texts we find repeated references  to quite specific/explicit sexual incontinence, like 'the surge of blood in my veins runs riot' and 'I feel the purple torrents of my bliss rise upwards'. These kind of sexual shenanigans were obviously seen as hilarious in Handel's day while in our age of advanced (for some) sexual/gender awareness,  it is probably more difficult to take these frolics with so much delight, since the libretto makes it perfectly clear that a violent assault and/or rape is intended. Additionally, the  issue of anti-semitism, in the outlandishly negative portrayal of the two Elders, must be seen within Handel's own context, when anti-semitism was common within a range of representations. 

I felt that tonight’s projection of all the characters, situations/emotions, rightly confined itself to the characterological as it pertains specifically to Handel's dramatic invention.  Tonight’s semi-staged production had the first Elder clinging to a framed (pin-up) of Susanna, thus emphasising the objectification of her as a sex object. The second Elder, given a splendidly macho, mock-heroic interpretatcion by bass Alan Ewing, struck up parallels with the cyclops Polyphemus in 'Acis and Galatea'. But his loud splenetic vocal distortions -sounding both grotesquely over the top in his libidinal boasting, and sickly and sentimental in his cringing self pity were a kind  of parody of Polyphemus; not so much the villain of classical antiquity as the ageing thug of small time modern gangsterism. The grief awaiting Susanna's husband was powerfully intoned by the double  fugue chorus, 'Oh Joacim' and  interestingly, Christie had the chorus variously positioned down to the front stage to sing directly to the audience as well as interspersed within and outside of the orchestra in smaller groups. The arrangement worked well in highlighting the chorus as the bringer of the narrative events in the style of classical Greek drama. 

In the third Act the chorus intones/endorses the death sentence 'Susanna must bleed', but quite soon after their affirmation of condemnation, when Susanna's innocence is proved, the chorus/crowd are singing of her universal virtue. Is public opinion quite so easily manipulated? It obviously was for Handel.

The sense of relief at Susanna's proven innocence was projected very well tonight: especially after the First Elder’s crocodile tears at Susanna's trial and sentencing in his G minor aria 'Round thy urn' ; 'the most revolting morally repulsive moment in the oratorio' for tonight’s programme note writer.  Today Susanna’s rescue by Daniel, the man from the crowd, a kind of dramatic deus ex machina might seem rather contrived,  but it still worked here. Counter-tenor David DQ Lee, as Daniel, was at times vocally strident, and his English was not always clear. But the right dramatic effect was achieved in his acerbic dismissal of the two repugnant Elders. His F major 'Chastity, thou cherub bright' with beautifully delineated orchestral counterpoint was totally convincing. 

Everything is sorted out at the end of Susanna, with the virtuous and much wiser heroine re-united with her husband Joacim. The rapturous duet praising their reunion, and the jubilant final chorus (with two baroque trumpets making their first and only entry in the work) celebrating the enduring qualities of a virtuous wife as 'far more precious than a golden crown',  rounded up this oratorio with something better than just a simple 'feel good' conclusion. 

Although a word of praise must go to soprano Emmanuelle De Negri as Susanna's unnamed consoling  attendant, perhaps the real ‘heroes’ tonight were Les Arts Florissants and the superb musicianship of their founder William Christie. They moulded every phrase and harmony with a beautiful elegance and clarity. I was constantly enthralled by the diversity and subtlety of Handel's orchestration (especially the lucid blend of baroque strings and woodwind) reflecting every nuance in the drama. And the thirty strong Arts Florissants chorus were never less than excellent. It is hoped very much that Christie will record Susanna soon, together with other neglected operas and oratorios from the protean Mr Handel. 

Geoff Diggines 

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