"There is no more contemporary story in any opera. You have 18th-century music and a narrative that feels as though it has been ripped out of an Independent headline," says Daniel Slater, who is directing a rare staging of Handel's oratorio Samson at Buxton Festival.
The piece portrays conflict, brutality and terrible revenge on the Gaza Strip. The Bible makes specific reference to the coastal territory's main city, Gaza, as the place where the Israelite warrior Samson was led into shorn-locked imprisonment by his Philistine lover, Delilah. There he died, a kind of suicide strongman, bringing down the pillars of the temple and killing not only the Philistine rulers but also vast numbers of civilians.
The oratorio is set in a square in Gaza, and Slater has worked closely with the designer Daniel Potra. Together they have given it a present-day slant, worlds away from the sword-and-sandal qualities of Cecil B DeMille's 1940s biblical epic Samson and Delilah.
Unusually, Slater prepared to direct the baroque work by reading Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation and Brian Keenan's An Evil Cradling. But then Handel's Samson is exceptional in many ways. Straight after Messiah, the composer turned to a libretto from Milton's "Samson Agonistes", based on the 16th chapter of the biblical Book of Judges.
It's from Milton's late years, by which time he was blind. The writer's sympathetic response to the blinded Samson struck a chord with Handel, whose own sight was beginning to fail. According to the Handel scholar Winton Dean, Milton created a work "that burns with a high moral fervour reinforced by the mature potency of a great poet". It's a piece for the eye and ear, as well as for the mind; for the "study", not the stage, says Dean. Does Slater agree? "Samson may have been conceived as an oratorio rather an opera, but it's an intensely dramatic work, and Handel went out of his way to cast performers who were better known as actors than as singers."
England's leading composer of the time also broke with the practice of using castrati in major parts, creating, in Samson, one of the first great dramatic tenor roles. In Buxton the role of the military man-turned-mass murderer is sung by Tom Randle. Rebecca Bottone, who recently impressed as the Cricket and the Parrot in Opera North's The Adventures of Pinocchio, turns slightly steamier as she takes on the character of the seductress, Dalila.
As was noted at the time of the work's premiere in 1743, Handel combined "Church-Musick" and "Airs of the Stage" in two distinct styles of choral writing. The music is exuberant and homophonic for the swaggering Philistines as they gloat over Samson's betrayal by a mere woman: "To man God's universal law / Gave power to keep the wife in awe." In contrast, the downtrodden Israelites give voice in solemn, polyphonic writing. The solo arias encompass many moods, from the bleak despair of the blinded Samson's darkly graphic "Total eclipse! No sun, no moon!" to Dalila's ravishing "With plaintive notes and amorous moan" as she calls on a chorus of virgins to "hear the voice of love"...
The brutality of the situation is emphasised by incorporating some pre-history – the actual torture and blinding of Samson, illustrated in shadowplay, to the accompaniment of one of the work's most striking arias, "Ye men of Gaza". The most recognisable number, "Let the bright seraphim", is sung by a messenger portrayed as a liberal female journalist, shocked by the scene of carnage she has observed, as the Philistines' revels turn to death and destruction. "It's an appeal for reconciliation," suggests Slater, "a glimmer of hope, for humanity to be sought in the opposition.
"We've made use of the fantastically vivid mind's eye, which visually impaired people seem to develop – a kind of second sight,"he continues, "giving Samson an interior life to help Randle develop his character and motivation on what could otherwise be a somewhat static journey."
The divided communities are represented by mobile walls and Potra's costumes are contemporary. There is, however, a timeless quality about the ghosts of heroes who appear to Samson in a dream, giving voice to his despair. Immediately after the scene that follows, where the Philistine festivities seem to invade the cell in which Samson is kept hostage, the Philistines and Israelites gather together, in apparent mockery of his plight.
"We wanted to avoid any cheap political grandstanding while at the same time emphasising the universality of the situation," says Slater. "The cell in which Samson is imprisoned is a naturalistic space similar to that described by Alan Johnston, the reporter kidnapped on the Gaza Strip, while Samson's visitors are hooded before being brought in to his claustrophobic holding place."
How well does this very modern interpretation blend with the distinctive colour of the period-instrument Orchestra of the Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers? Slater is convinced that the pared away sounds add to the tension of Samson, the sparseness of the textures contributing a flexibility that enhances and contrasts with the dramatic nuances of a piece, which both Slater and Potra hope will emerge in Buxton as much more than a worthy artefact to be handled with white museum gloves.
'Samson' plays in rep at the Opera House, Buxton (0845 127 2190) from 11 to 27 JulyReuse content