Tuesday 21 November 2017

Review: Exceptional retelling of Handel

Classical: Samson, National Concert Hall

Pat O'Kelly

Despite Handel's Samson dating from the same time as Messiah, it is quite different from its sibling oratorio. Yet there are similarities, recognisable in the choral and instrumental parts rather than the abundant arias.

Loosely based on Milton's Samson Agonistes, the moderately dramatic result hinges on the principal character, supported bravely by father Manoah and friend Micah.

Strangely, wife Dalila has less prominence and, while bewitching, lacks the sensuality Saint-Saëns' later opera implies. Philistine giant Harapha is the undoubted villain whom Samson dispatches with cunning deceit.

The oratorio comes to the NCH this week in a well-nigh impeccable performance with Chamber Choir Ireland, Irish Baroque Orchestra and visiting soloists under English conductor Matthew Halls.

The 16-voice CCI produces a more opulent sound than their numbers suggest and their choruses are flexibly florid and brilliantly coloured.

Period instrument IBO moves from lithe serenity to vital attack with some marvellous obbligati, not least leader Claire Duff's cooing turtle doves in Dalila's air 'With plaintive notes'.

Words seem inadequate in describing tenor James Gilchrist's ethereal interpretation of the title role. With incisive diction, his recitatives and arias are sung with intrinsic feeling and penetrating clarity. His final 'Thus when the sun', is an object lesson in Handel oratorio singing.

Gilchrist is superbly assisted by bass James Oldfield as paternal Manoah and richly voiced alto Madeleine Shaw as sympathetic Micah.

Tonal purity marks soprano Katherine Watson's Dalila while bass Jonathan Best is the avenging Harapha. Kate Macoboy pierces Handel's afterthought epilogue, 'Let the bright seraphim', with angelic darts where IBO's trumpets add a vibrant dash of seasoning. An exceptional Handelian occasion.

Irish Independent

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