Handel's dramatic oratorio Susanna, composed in 1748 between two of his greatest masterpieces, Solomon and Theodora, has enjoyed comparatively little attention. This is partly because, as the great Handelian Winton Dean pointed out, after its overture and marmoreal opening chorus the score lapses into something closer to a highly attractive but leisurely English comic opera.
That opening chorus was not the only number cut to lend some focus and pace to the Early Opera Company's new staging at the Queen Elizabeth Hall . At least the cod-Augustan libretto sets up a wide range of emotional situations for its Biblical protagonist and nicely differentiates the two lecherous elders who molest and then denounce her.
Netia Jones, the director and designer of this modern-dress production, has set it in a court room, with the chorus as jury and the elders doubling as prosecutors. It works well enough, though some of the stylised Peter Sellars-ish choral gesticulations made for a less than perfect ensemble with the music director Christian Curnyn and his dozen period- instrument players in the pit.
The tenor Mark Curtis as the sentimental First Elder and bass Simon Kirkbride as the brutally direct Second made the most of their opportunities. The young Rebecca Bottone as the Witness made something radiant of her serene apostrophe "Chastity, thou cherub bright". And as Susanna, Rachel Nicholls commanded an impressive range.
Only Lucifer himself gets a mad scene in La Resurrezione, which kicked off this year's Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music in St John's, Smith Square. This oratorio, with which the 23-year-old Handel dazzled the cognoscenti of Rome in 1707, was once even more neglected than Susanna. Trevor Pinnock started off the English Concert at a perilous pace that rendered the soprano Carolyn Sampson's spectacular intervention as the Angel a breathless affair - though she sang her later numbers with lustrous poise.
Veronica Cangemi was a passionate Mary Magdelene and made a stronger impression than the slightly under-powered Mary Cleophas of Emma Curtis; the tenor John Mark Ainsley was his reliable lyric self as St John and Alan Ewing a powerfully buffo Lucifer. On a horridly humid evening there was nonetheless much to savour.
By Bayan Northcott
'Susanna': 11 July, Royal Theatre, Northampton (01604 624811) 19 July, Cheltenham Festival (01242 227979). Lufthansa Festival continues to 23 June, (020-7222 1061)Reuse content