George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Susanna HWV 66 (1749)
Emily Fons (mezzo soprano), Christopher Lowrey (countertenor), Colin Balzer (tenor), Raimund Nolte (bass-baritone), Clara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano)
Vokalakademie Berlin, NDR Chor
FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Laurence Cummings
rec. 5 May 2016, Stadthalle, Göttingen, Germany
Sung in English; the full English and German texts included ACCENT ACC26406 [3 CDs: 184:17]
Susanna comes late in the sequence of Handel’s oratorios but in some ways the composer looks back in it to his experience of Italian opera. It largely comprises a sequence of arias (many in the repeated, da capo form of opera seria) as it relates the story from the Biblical Apocrypha of Susanna who is falsely accused of adultery and eventually vindicated through the clever judicial manoeuvrings of the young prophet Daniel. The theme of fidelity and justice dispensed to protect the virtuous is applied by analogy as a moral lesson to Israel—and by extension to the community of Christian believers—but only through a handful of choruses in this oratorio. It is the human drama among Susanna, her husband Joacim, and her scheming accusers which is the focus of the work, rather than a larger political or national dilemma drawn on a wider dramatic canvas, as with many of Handel’s other oratorios.
Listeners familiar with the usual vigour of Laurence Cummings’s performances at the London Handel Festival or the Göttingen International Handel Festival (from a live performance at which this live recording derives) may be surprised at the sombre, mournful mood which he adopts from the beginning of the overture, and maintains for considerable stretches of at least the first Act. But he sustains tension and a sense of direction with the FestspielOrchester Göttingen through such understatement, which particularly complements the Purcellian opening chorus with its descending, chromatic ground bass. The final chorus of Act One is quite a tour de force as it alternates between the moral gravitas of its opening section and the jauntier character of the section on “Yet his bolt shall quickly fly”. But here, as elsewhere, Cummings secures a lightness of touch in this performance which avoids any censure or condemnation, fastening with sympathy upon the human weaknesses and foibles at play in the drama, to the extent that the opening chorus of Act Three, pronouncing upon Susanna’s apparent guilt, could sound more threatening than it does here. But in the interest of dramatic subtlety Colin Balzer’s First Elder, for example, is no caricatured lecher in preying upon Susanna, but sings lyrically and so elicits some pity even, at least initially, for his passion that will never be requited by Susanna.
Emily Fons displays notable versatility in her characterisation of the title role, varying between a fresh-sounding innocence and youthfulness appropriate to the part, and a more commanding tone of authority elsewhere, such as in “Bending to the throne of glory”. There could, though, have been a touch more force and defiance in “If guiltless blood be your intent” as she resigns herself to the death sentence meted out upon her for her supposed indiscretion, if only for the sake of more musical contrast both with her music elsewhere and particularly with the broad dignity of that aria’s central section.
As Susanna’s husband, Joacim, Christopher Lowrey sings with a well-rounded tone which is also incisive, and complements Fons’s performance charmingly. Raimund Nolte takes the part both of her father, Chelsias, and the Second Elder, drawing a suitable contrast between the roles. In the former he sounds mellow and kindly, though with some stilted English vowels, like a drawl, which also affects his darker account of the Elder. When Clara Hendrick first appears as Daniel, she sounds almost mischievous, as the prophet intrudes with youthful ardour and questions the authority of the Elders, exposing their contradictory evidence which leads to Susanna’s vindication.
Despite being a rarity amongst the Handelian canon, this oratorio has done well on disc. This is the third recording it has received, all of which have something to recommend them. Peter Neumann’s 1999 interpretation with the Kölner Kammerchor and the Collegium Cartusianum (review) tends to be more musically alert and consistent than Cummings’s. On the other hand, Neumann makes a number of cuts, which will disappoint dedicated Handelians, who are the most likely to want a recording of this work in the first place. To his credit, Cummings makes no cuts at all, whereas Nicholas McGegan in his recording even omits one of the choruses (curiously, perhaps, seeing as there are comparatively few to start with). But McGegan’s is otherwise the most beautifully nuanced performance, with lightly and elegantly sprung numbers making for a more consistently satisfying musical account, alongside the greater stature of the singers used, foremost among them Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, unforgettable as Susanna. McGegan’s recording is not widely available, though there is an upload currently accessible on YouTube. Cummings’s version is still worthy as more than simply the next best choice, but on its own terms for its own idiomatic merits and as the only complete recording. Accordingly it will repay the attention of Handel fans.