After the romp that is Lortzing's The Poacher – the rarity with which Buxton Festival opened its 30th anniversary celebrations – Handel's biblical oratorio Samson could scarcely be in greater contrast. While the overture plays, a strip of period and contemporary images is projected across the stage, its message clearly conveying terror, terrorism, dictators, axis of evil.
We first see Samson, not eyeless in Gaza as the libretto suggests, but being blinded by the Philistines, portrayed discreetly but sickeningly enough in shadowplay. No longer superhuman, he slumps defeated, confined within a small room with grubby walls.
Yet when Samson finds his voice, confiding to his friend Micah that, of all his burdens, blindness isthe heaviest, the tenor Tom Randle makes an immediate and sturdy impact. Here, and later in his defiant aria "Let Not the God of Israel Sleep", he hovers fittingly between the lyric and the heroic.
No matter how persuasively the director Daniel Slater's present-day setting is executed, or how inventive Daniel Potra's designs may be, an oratorio, especially when staged, relies on good singing. Buxton has cast well. Elin Manahan Thomas is expressive as the Philistine (later Israelite) Woman, her "Let the Bright Seraphim" suggesting, if not peace, then at least hope.
Rebecca Bottone brings musical substance to the ambiguous role of Dalila, but it is Rebecca de Pont Davies who shines as an articulate, noble Micah, especially moving in "Ye Sons of Israel Now Lament". Jonathan Best makes a sonorous Harapha, and Russell Smythe, dignified as Manoah, reaches the heart of the music in "Thy Glorious Deeds".
The conductor Harry Christophers captures the pacing and shaping of the score, while the tone and technique of the Orchestra of The Sixteen is as responsive in its sweep as it is admirable in its care over detail. The Festival Chorus, vital in its representation of the Israelites one minute and the Philistines the next, carries off its double-sided role in a disciplined, sensitive and surprisingly spontaneous manner.
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