Handel: Susanna

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold
WORKS: Susanna
PERFORMER: Ruth Holton (soprano), Elisabeth von Magnus (mezzo-soprano), Sytse Buwalda (alto), John Elwes (tenor), Tom Sol (bass); Cologne Chamber Choir, Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 332 0945-2
Handel composed Susanna hot on the heels of Solomon in the summer of 1748. And in most respects the two oratorios could hardly be more contrasted. While Solomon is the most opulent of all Handel’s pageants, Susanna, based on a story from the Apocrypha, is essentially an intimate drama. One of Handel’s friends wrote of its ‘light operatic style’; and there is certainly a flavour of the newly fashionable ballad opera in some of the arias, and in the depiction of the two lecherous Elders who vainly woo and then frame Susanna. But the second and third acts touch tragic depths, and the heroine herself is one of Handel’s most searching portraits, growing from innocence to a profound spiritual serenity.

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Susanna finally surfaced on disc in 1989, courtesy of Nicholas McGegan. His cast is not ideal, and the orchestral and choral work, while lively enough, has some rough edges. But he has a trump card in Lorraine Hunt’s Susanna, guilelessly charming in the opening scenes and later rising to a true tragic dignity. Elisabeth von Magnus, on this new recording, sings pleasantly but lacks both Hunt’s firmness of tone and her intensity of characterisation. And her English, like that of the countertenor Sytse Buwalda, can be incomprehensible, especially in recitative. Ruth Holton, with her chaste, boyish soprano, makes her mark as Susanna’s attendant and the sanctimonious deus ex machina Daniel, and tenor John Elwes is nicely wheedling as the First Elder. Chorus and orchestra are more polished than those on the rival set; but Peter Neumann’s direction, while sound enough, can be a tad staid, with too little feel for the score’s dance rhythms. McGegan’s recording, then, is still the one to go for, above all for Hunt’s glorious contribution. Richard Wigmore