Proms 47/53: OAE/Norrington/English Concert/Bicket/, Royal Albert Hall, London
Having watched Joyce DiDonato break a leg at Covent Garden - and go on singing superbly as if nothing had happened - it was no surprise to find her effortlessly dominating a Prom a few weeks later.
And with just four pieces: two recitatives from Haydn’s ‘Berenice’, and two sulphurous arias by Handel. If the emotions in Haydn were classically contained, in Handel they all but blew the roof off. First ‘Ombra mai fu’ to soften us up, then Alcina’s ‘Ah! Mio cor’ - the expression of a nakedly suffering soul, which this fiery Kansas mezzo turned into burnished gold. The hall loved her pure and forceful sound - brilliantly set off by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Roger Norrington - and gave it generously back.
Meanwhile Harry Bicket and the period-instrument English Concert provided a Handelian feast with the uncut original version of ‘Samson’. The whole point of this Samson, drawn from Milton’s valedictory poem, is his blindness, 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 in tears at the sight of the sightless composer.
The despairing central aria is one of Handel’s grandest and gravest. ‘Total eclipse! No sun, no moon/ All dark amid the blaze of noon!’ sings Samson, here heroically incarnated by tenor Mark Padmore. His was a superbly expressive performance, reflecting every combustible mood by which the hero is tormented. The evening’s other hero, as the dramatic commentator Micah, was counter-tenor Iestyn Davies: with the perfection of Andreas Scholl but much more warmth, he projected his voice so effectively as to out-sing the double-size chorus, while even his pianissimos carried round the dome. In Christopher Purves we got a convincingly harrumphing Philistine champion, and in sopranos Susan Gritton and Lucy Crowe 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.
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.
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