We think of ‘Samson and Delilah’, but Handel and his contemporaries thought of ‘Samson Agonistes’, Milton’s valedictory dramatic poem which formed the basis of the libretto for Handel’s ‘Samson’.
And the whole point of this Samson is his blindness - ‘eyeless in Gaza’, as Milton punningly put it - and his castrated despair, before his apotheosis as the world’s first suicide-bomber. Milton was blind, and Handel himself was going blind: in later performances of this work, audiences were engulfed by tears at the sight of the sightless composer.
If blindness is the work’s main subject matter, it's sometimes dealt with in an astonishingly prescient way. ‘Why to the tender eyes is sight confined?’ asks the drama’s commentator Micah, going on to propose an idea which adumbrates what modern science has found in certain denizens of the animal kingdom: ‘Why not as feelings through all parts diffus’d/ That we might look at will through every pore?’
The despairing aria which triggers that piece of proto-science is one of Handel’s grandest and gravest. ‘Total eclipse! No sun, no moon/ All dark amid the blaze of noon!’ sings Samson, in this Prom heroically incarnated by tenor Mark Padmore. Just occasionally his vibrato was (for me) overdone, but in the main this was a superbly expressive performance, reflecting every sulphurous mood by which the hero is tormented. The evening’s other hero, in the role of Micah, was counter-tenor Iestyn Davies: with all the perfection of Andreas Scholl, but with much more warmth, he projected his voice so effectively that he balanced the double-size chorus, while even his pianissimos carried powerfully round the dome. In Christopher Purves we got a convincingly harrumphing Philistine champion, and in sopranos Susan Gritton and Lucy Crowe respectively we had the ideal Delila and Virgin: Gritton evinced moral frailty (this is a very misogynistic work) while Crowe radiated moral strength, and when they duetted, their contrasting timbres blended ravishingly.
This oratorio was written almost simultaneously with the ‘Messiah’, yet it inhabits a completely different sound-world - and one which Harry Bicket and the period-instrument English Concert and Choir brilliantly realised. The evening was studded with lovely instrumental moments, from natural trumpets and a chamber organ for Samson’s Dead March, to super-bright slide-trumpets for Gritton’s triumphal delivery of ‘Let the bright Seraphim’. I can’t imagine this majestic work, with its stately progression from darkness to light, being better done.