Handel created two oratorio masterpieces in 1741, but only one, “Messiah,” gets performed regularly. The other, “Samson,” garnered a 20th-century publicity hit when Kiri Te Kanawa sang its concluding aria, “Let the bright seraphim,” at the royal wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981, but the Handel and Haydn Society, which gave the work its American premiere in 1845, hadn’t done it since the 19th century. So it was good to have it back as the finale of H&H’s 199th season.
The libretto for “Samson” was adapted, by Newburgh Hamilton, from John Milton’s 1671 epic poem “Samson Agonistes.” Samson, after Dalila cuts his hair, loses his strength, and the Philistines capture and blind him. In Handel’s oratorio, Samson acknowledges his sin, rejects Dalila’s apology, stands up to the Philistine bully Harapha, and, after being taken to a Philistine temple, brings the house down. Light is a central concept here: Samson may see “no sun, no moon,” but he’s afforded the possibility of God’s inner illumination. And Handel’s music is by no means as black-and-white as Milton’s poem: Dalila seems sincere, not to mention seductive, in her appeal, and whereas the Israelite choruses are severely serene, the wine-drinking Philistines have a hell of a good time.
H&H artistic director Harry Christophers’s 2002 recording of “Samson” with the Sixteen and the Symphony of Harmony and Invention runs a daunting, if very listenable, 205 minutes. At Symphony Hall on Sunday, Christophers sensibly pruned the oratorio down to just under three hours (including a 20-minute intermission). Among his better decisions was the excision of the Chorus’s lines “To man God’s universal law / Gave power to keep the wife in awe.”
The core of this performance was the H&H Chorus, which made a joyful noise whether singing as Israelites or Philistines. The period instrument orchestra was also in good form, especially in the Dead March following Samson’s death. The soloists, headed by Joshua Ellicott as Samson, Joélle Harvey as Dalila, Dashon Burton as Harapha, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the Israelite Micah (she sings the same role on Christophers’s recording) were an earnest lot, notwithstanding Harvey’s turtle-dove cooing. At times I wish they had been a little less orotund and a little more direct. As Samson’s father, Manoah, Matthew Brook made the most of his crucial line “Whilst I have eyes he wants no light.” Two H&H Chorus members also shone: tenor Stefan Reed as the Messenger, and soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad as the Israelitish woman holding her own against the orchestra’s trumpets in “Let the bright seraphim.”