Demolition in Gaza
Histon Baptist Church
George Frideric Handel: Samson
Denise Leigh (Dalila), Robert Johnston (Samson), Paul Esswood (Micah), Stephen Varcoe (Harapha), Richard Hooper (Manoah)
Choir 2000, The Brook Ensemble
Grayston Burgess (conductor)
The University City of Cambridge and its hinterland probably has as high a density of first-rate amateur musical groups as anywhere in the world: students, some of them singers in the many cathedral quality choirs, or graduates of the outstanding faculty of music, like to remain in the area or at least to keep up links with the city; and a generally affluent and well educated population adds to the interest in local performance. Choir 2000 is an open-membership choir and, inevitably, works within the broader English choral tradition rather than the historically informed style that is usual these days for performances of Handel. Given the large size of the choir, whose members seem to live largely in the nearly conjoined villages of Histon and Impington, they are never going to be The Sixteen. But almost everyone, in these islands at least, who has ever sung a Handel chorus has first appreciated the composerís art as part of a massed choir, and this evening was at least a reminder that the alleged bad old days were not so bad at all.
The choir was, not unexpectedly, thoroughly rehearsed and enthusiastic and the small orchestral was energetic and a touch raw. The music was, even less surprisingly, cut to within an inch of its dramatic life and then some. There might not be much to be made of the co-incidence of destruction in Gaza in the oratorio and in the news in recent days, but Samsonís destructive, vengeful suicide has emotional and moral resonance with the suicide bombers who, ironically in this context, attack Israel. If the music came to no harm, there was little sense of the horror or grandeur of Samsonís humiliation and death, more a feeling of hanging on for grim death to a narrative thread that wasnít quite there.
The main interest of this performance, though, was in two of the soloists: Paul Esswood, the grand old man of theatrical counter-tenors and the original Akhenaten, and Denise Leigh, who was joint winner of the Operatunity series on Channel 4 television. The other three singers were reliable professional singers with roots in the Anglican choral tradition: Stephen Varcoe was a rather gentle, baritonal Harapha; Richard Hooper was a decidedly youthful Manoah, possibly younger than his putative son; Robert Johnson was vocally impressive as Samson, achieving a fair level of intensity although with little sense of drama. He made "Total eclipse" quite moving.
Esswood is still in good vocal shape, singing with apparent ease (in contrast to the highly artful and effortful recent performances of his near contemporary, James Bowman), but not with a lot of force. Micah is not a role with much character: his words are mainly those of Samsonís collective friends in Miltonís poem, and his name is that of a minor prophet with not much of a story from the next book of the Bible. Esswood concentrated on the beauty of the music, getting most mileage out of his great aria "Return O God of hosts".
Leigh was a delightfully fluent and glamorous Dalila, though obviously not a doll with whom it is wise to pick a fight. The soprano music in Samson is not Handelís most demanding, but it was clear that she had plenty to spare and that this is exactly what she should be singing. She has a touch of the brittle old oratorio style at times, but when she gets hold of the music, there is no stopping her. Leigh also had the best of the otherwise occasionally raucous trumpet in "Let the bright Seraphim", which tonight was a glorious duet.