Review: Handel’s Samson ****

Edinburgh International Festival

Handel’s Samson

Usher Hall

18:00 (13 August only)

**** (4 stars)

As you would expect, there was excellent singing and superb playing from the Dunedin consort, especially the trumpet and horn players. Outstanding among the singers were Matthew Brook as Manoa, Samson’s sorrowing father; David Soar as the arrogant ‘baddy’ giant Harapha; the amazingly seductive Dalila of Sophie Bevan; and Paul Appleby’s Samson who virtually carried the whole show and had his own, rather incongruous, pink upholstered armchair just in front of the excellent 6-to-a-part chorus. I found Alice Coote’s Micah disappointing in the first act – either she was suffering vocally or the part was not lying comfortably for her – the top and bottom notes were good, but the bit in the middle was rather woolly: however, she redeemed herself in Acts 2 and 3, with a moving lament after Samson’s death.

Apart from the only two “famous bits” – Samson’s act 1 lament Total eclipse and the final, exultant Let the bright seraphim, there was much good music and the devil definitely had all the best tunes! The Philistines rejoiced in their god, Dagon, in act one; Dalila had a ball singing of the delights of love as she attempted to seduce Samson [and the whole audience, I feel!] in act 2; while Harapha and the chorus had a fantastic time in act 3, when they thought their god, Dagon, was going to triumph in the battle with Jehovah. Alas, all the ‘Jehovah is great’ music, though worthy and sonorous, failed to move me. I wasn’t very happy with Samson’s ‘but the woman tempted me and I fell’ line, nor with Micah’s attempt at consolation – “the wisest men have err’d, and been deceiv’d, by female arts”. There was some fabulous verbal sparring between Samson and Dalila after her enormously seductive with plaintive notes and am’rous moan – but the bitch from hell burst forth magnificently when she was spurned. The Israelites’ pious declaration that To man God’s universal law Gave pow’r, to keep the wife in awe. Thus shall his life be ne’er dismay’s, By female usurpation sway’d cut no ice at all with me! At the end, after lamenting Samson’s death, we get the glorification of the noble hero who died valiantly and killed all our enemies [Terry Pratchett has a great deal of sense to say about those who talk about ‘valiant deaths in battle’, none of it complimentary], and an Israelite Woman launches into let the bright Seraphim – a gorgeous piece of music which now, alas, has overtones of the falsely fairytale royal wedding: and ho ho ho we get out the trumpets and celebrate – with the triumphant ending predictably whipping up a positive storm of applause and cheering…

It was lovely music, excellently played and sung: I just didn’t much care for what it was saying….the piece may have been a howling success in its day, but its words tend to jar today. Do we blame Milton, or do we blame Handel, or do we just say ‘things were different in those days, let’s make sure that sort of attitude doesn’t prevail today???

Mary Woodward