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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Susanna – Oratorio in three acts, HWV 66
Susanna – Emily Fons (mezzo)
Joacim – Christopher Lowrey (countertenor)
First Elder – Colin Balzer (tenor)
Second Elder/Chelsias – Raimund Nolte (bass-bar)
Daniel/Attendant – Ciara Hendrick (mezzo)
Judge – Andreas Pruys (bass)
NDR Chor, FestspielOrchester Göttingen / Laurence Cummings
rec. live, 5 May 2016, Stadthalle Göttingen, Germany
ACCENT ACC26406 [3 CDs: 77:40 + 56:19 + 50:18]

This year’s release from the Göttingen International Handel Festival gives us Susanna, a work that dates from 1749, the same year as Theodora. Both works focus on a story of faith under pressure in an ancient environment, and both focus on a remarkable female figure as their central character. The story, from the Apocrypha, has been immortalised in countless Renaissance and Baroque paintings (many of which are reproduced in the attractive booklet for this release). The virtuous Susanna is surprised, while bathing, by two lecherous elders. They accuse of her of adultery as revenge for her refusal of their advances, but the prophet Daniel exposes their crime and Susanna’s virtue is rewarded.

In one sense it is a typically moral example of a story for an oratorio, but Handel’s anonymous librettist turns it into a more dramatic story, with the elders being musically mocked for their lechery, and Daniel’s entry in the final act treated like a deus-ex-machina hero.

The performance captured here is very good indeed. Emily Fons is marvellous in the title role, beautiful but also plangent and emotional. She evokes both the wedded bliss of Part One and the desperate stress of Part Two very effectively, and the crystalline clarity of her voice is a real benefit.

Christopher Lowrey sings the part of Susanna’s husband, Joachim. His pearly countertenor is very pleasing on the ear, but also utterly distinctive so that there is never any danger of mixing him up with the female voices. He, too, evokes wedded bliss very effectively in Part One, and becomes heroic in the later acts.

Ciara Hendrick sings the small part of the attendant very beautifully indeed, and she makes an agile, wily Daniel to resolve the whole drama. “Chastity, thou Cherub bright” is a highlight of the whole performance; still, beautiful and wonderful.

Colin Balzer is a cracking elder, evoking the character’s lechery very well, while tapping into the blackly comic aspects of the role every bit as effectively. The only slight disappointment is the nasal bass of Raimund Nolte, who sticks out like a sore thumb as the non-Anglophone member of the cast and, unfortunately, lets down the whole side. He does redeem himself, however, just about, with his final triumphal aria.

The chorus do an absolutely splendid job, and sing with impeccable English diction, as well as biting drama. They have clearly been brilliantly trained by their director, Edzard Burchards. Laurence Cummings directs the whole thing with typical sprightly elegance, and the orchestra play for him like experts. Recorded sound is also good, despite a few audience coughs, and some applause is retained at the end of each part. This recording deserves to win many more friends for this little-known late masterpiece. It certainly won one in me.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Curtis Rogers



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