Emmanuel Music presents Boston premiere of Handel’s “Susanna”
Emmanuel Music provided a strong performance of Handel’s Susanna, in its belated Boston premiere Saturday night. The work is not one of Handel’s more frequently performed oratorios, and this concert performance exposed the work’s shortcomings while also making a convincing case for its revival. This latter was due mainly to a fine cast of singers and the polished contributions of the Emmanuel chorus and orchestra.
Handel composed Susanna in 1748, basing it on one of the stories from the Book of Daniel. The plot is both intimate and operatic. Joacim must leave his beautiful and virtuous wife, Susanna, for a few days. In his absence, two lecherous Elders attempt to woo her. Susanna refuses them, and in retaliation, the Elders accuse Susanna of adultery. She is sentenced to death, but a young Daniel proves her innocence just in time. Susanna and Joacim are reunited, and this time, it is the Elders who are sentenced to death.
The problem with Susanna is the first act, which consists mostly of Susanna and Joacim trading da capo arias of praise and adoration. Even Handel cannot do much with this; at one point, Joacim compares his love for Susanna to that of a mother bird to its chicks.
Perhaps Handel was well aware of his libretto’s shortcomings: he sandwiches the first act between the two most magnificent choral pieces of the oratorio. The chorus at the end of the first act, a fierce double fugue, is particularly impressive and tossed off with panache by the Emmanuel orchestra and chorus. The ensuing two acts are replete with drama. The heart of Susanna lies in the second act, with Susanna’s dignified acceptance of the Elders’ false accusations and her impending execution.
Kendra Colton proved an excellent Susanna, displaying a soprano that was accurate, controlled, youthful, and stylish. It was not the biggest instrument, but she shaped every roulade and scale into a musical gesture. Her Susanna was calm and noble even in the face of death, but fiery after her vindication, particularly in her third act bravura aria “Guilt trembling.”
Deborah Rentz-Moore was a fine Joacim, if not quite at Colton’s level. Hers was an effortlessly warm and resonant mezzo, with exquisite control over vibrato. Part of the problem may be in Joacim’s music, which lacks the variety and characterization of Susanna’s.
One of the delights of Susanna is Handel’s carefully differentiation of the two lustful Elders. Frank Kelley’s First Elder is whiny, fretful, and almost puppy-eyed. His tenor is not large and, at times, a bit woolly, but he deploys a virtuosic palette of colors and effects, most strikingly in the longing melismas that symbolized his character’s lust.
Donald Wilkinson’s Second Elder, on the other hand, is authoritative and cruel; at one point, he compares himself to an oak tree, and Wilkinson’s bass was, aptly, a resonant column from top to bottom. Mark McSweeney turned in a warm if two-dimensional Chelsias, Susanna’s father, his role probably suffers from the fact that it had nothing to do besides sing his daughter’s praises.
Teresa Wakim in the small role of Daniel was an absolute treat. Her soprano was effortlessly pure and agile, and her Daniel was every inch a thirteen-year old boy who relished interrupting his elders and delivering morals at the end of his divine judgments. Her aria “Chastity, thou cherub bright” was a highlight of the evening.
Ryan Turner’s conducting was sympathetic to the singers and firmly underlined the moments of drama. Thankfully, he is not one of those conductors who is afraid to do a forte because something was written before the nineteenth century. The Emmanuel Chorus was shipshape, unfolding Handel’s fugues with clarity while zipping through the numerous scales. Despite Susanna’s aged and inert libretto, the musicians and the music are reasons enough to revisit the work.
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