Consort and friends raise mighty Samson

9 December 2022

While the soloists shine brightly in Samson, Penny Shaw is captivated by the magnificent St George’s Cathedral Consort and orchestra.

Handel’s Samson, St George’s Cathedral Consort & Orchestra of St George ·
Perth Concert Hall, 8 December 2022 · 

Every year there is a plethora of Messiahs, so it was an absolute joy to hear Samson, one of Handel’s other, equally musically brilliant oratorios performed live at the Perth Concert Hall.  

English oratorio is an accidental result of a ruling in 1732 by the Bishop of London that biblical stories could not be staged at the theatre, leaving Handel to rework his religious-themed operas for presentation in concert form only.  

This version – and there have been many – was abridged by Dr Joseph Nolan, who also conducted, and afforded us two hours of exquisitely rendered music, with the St George’s Cathedral Consort in top form, the Orchestra of St George led with grace and passion by Shaun Lee-Chen, and an impressive line-up of soloists.  

Paul McMahon fills Samson’s shoes admirably, with his firm, flexible vocals. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

Unlike most renditions of this biblical tale, Handel’s Samson opens after his famously unpleasant encounter with the seductive Deliliah; the removal of his famous hair and, subsequently, eyes, leaving him blind and weak.  

The libretto, taken from Milton’s play Samson Agonistes, is sung in English with the text printed in the program. This is a mixed blessing — without it much of the meaning would have been lost (beauty of sound was frequently prioritised over clarity of diction), but equally the absurdity of some of the sentiments expressed is hard to ignore.  

Paul McMahon is well equipped for the role of Samson, a firm, flexible tenor, with a clear tone; “Total eclipse” has much pathos as he describes his debilitating blindness. David Greco, as Samson’s somewhat unsympathetic father Manoah, laments his son’s sudden demise and its subsequent effect on him (“who’d be a father now in my stead?”) with beautifully shaped and poised phrasing.  

Sara Macliver, resplendent in satin, is worth the wait, delivering one of the first half’s highlights. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

Sara Macliver’s Delilah, dressed as the original scarlet woman in flame satin, doesn’t appear until Act 2 but she is worth the wait. Her charming pleas for forgiveness, echoed by Bonnie De La Hunty in a shimmering duet, provide one of the music highlights of the first half. Samson, however, refuses to fall for her “warbling charms” twice and their feisty duet takes us into the interval.  

If the first half is perhaps a little buttoned up, the second half is replete with drama, enhanced by the arrival of Robert Hofmann, as Haraptha the giant, picking up the energy with his characteristic dramatic flair, powerful voice and excellent diction. 

Fiona Campbell gives an intelligent and emotionally shaped performance in the role of Micah, a friend and foil to Samson, delivering each phrase with conviction and absorbing intensity.   

Fiona Campbell gives an intelligent and emotionally shaped performance as Micah. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

But enough about the soloists. This oratorio would be nothing without its chorus and orchestra. Nolan just radiates energy and passion from the podium, squeezing every last ounce of detail from the eternally brilliant Cathedral Consort; whether as plaintive Israelites in “Hear, Jacob’s God” or perky Philistines in “To Song and Dance We Give the Day”, they excel.  

The clarity of the choir is echoed in the orchestra; the transparency of sound allowing us to hear every nuance and the continuo, from Stewart Smith and Noeleen Wright on cello, is flawless.  

The action reaches fever pitch in Act 3 as Samson, realising his strength is returning, agrees to go to the Philistine Temple with Harpera, famously pulling the temple down, killing himself and his enemies. Micha mourns his death but his father implores the people to celebrate the life of their hero. And what better way to celebrate than with “Let the Bright Seraphim”, probably the most famous music in the show.  

St George’s Cathedral Consort lend their powerful voices to ‘Samson’. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

Macliver returns as an Israelite woman, and in duet with the extraordinary Brent Grapes on the trumpet, is absolutely in her element, her sparkling tone and vocal pyrotechnics bringing the house down. The concert wraps up with a blinding finish from the chorus; cheers from the crowd and numerous curtain calls for all involved.  

The attendance was a little disappointing, considering the quality of the creative team behind this performance. It is surprising that this fine work, in Handel’s day possibly the most popular of all his oratorios, is so rarely performed. I felt fortunate to have heard it with such a spectacular team. Let’s hope it returns, in the words of the Israelites, “ever to sound his praise in an endless blaze of light”.   

Pictured top: The extraordinary creative team behind ‘Samson’, led by Joseph Nolan, deserved a much bigger audience. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

The Cathedral Consort will open the 2023 season in April with Mozart’s Great Mass.

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Author —
Penny Shaw

Penny is an opera singer/cabaret artist/MC/podcaster/writer/director, in fact a self-confessed 'slashie' with a degree in Human Sciences from Oxford University. As a child she loved the the heady terror of a fast roundabout, as a mother of four children she hates swings.

Past Articles

  • Young singers in full voice for opera allsorts

    With 16 soloists, a 37-piece orchestra and a wonderfully varied repertoire, this opera gala is worth singing about, writes Penny Shaw.

  • A superb taste of Spain

    Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya leads a playful WASO through some Spanish flavours, with Penny Shaw particularly taken by a thrilling interpretation of Rodrigo’s famous Adagio. 

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