Samson, an oratorio by George Frederick Handel
Libretto by Newburgh Hamilton, based on John Milton’s Samson Agonistes
First Baptist Church, Seattle
May 4, 2019
We’re living in difficult times. Tweets and insults triumph over the kind of thought that matches the complexity of our problems. A disturbing number of leaders in Washington are sly, vicious, or both. Beloved institutions meant to protect the people are undermined by those meant to “support and defend” the Constitution. Collectively we are forced to commit crimes that appall us: we force Mexican children from their parents and incarcerate them in soulless desert buildings; we open floodgates of opportunity to foreign governments who mean us harm; we dismantle laws forged over time to defend our fragile earth and beloved public spaces. We allow the proliferation of guns and tolerate school shootings. Education, medical care, and opportunity are increasingly restricted to a wealthy white minority. And that’s the short summary—the pages of this newspaper have documented at length the threats and violence to our readership, including women, LGBTQ communities, and people of color.
Into this desperate moment steps none other than John Milton (1608-1674) the great English poet who used his brilliant gifts to defend human freedom and to fight a form of government—inherited monarchy—that he believed to be as corrupt as the one we are struggling with now. He didn’t carry placards or chain himself to the fence of Buckingham Palace. He wrote poems in an age when poetry was the Internet of its day. He also wrote polemics for freedom of the press, divorce, and free expression when the King and then Cromwell’s parliament attempted to control liberal forces among the populace.
Now, as in Milton’s time, “the pen is mightier than the sword” and valiant writers—journalists, poets, lyricists, novelists, dramatists, film writers and performers of all kinds—are raising their voices to protest the erosion of civility and justice in this dangerous era. But in addition to new works, this is the right time for us to turn to masters of the past who remind us how to fight the good fight for human rights. The human race has been here before—we know how to combat powers that would throw us backward into darker times. PacificMusicWorks, by bringing to the stage G.F. Handel’s oratorio Samson— based on Milton’s great poem Samson Agonistes—has used its brilliant musical forces to present a work that, in addition to being a sublime musical experience, speaks directly to our condition.
It is the biblical story of the Israelite warrior Samson, blinded and enslaved by his enemies, the Philistines, because he foolishly, destructively, revealed to the spy Delilah that the secret of his dominating power was his hair—which she then cut. As Samson struggles with his own stupidity and loss of vision—literally blinded, but also duped, discouraged, and helpless—a chorus of family, friends, and enemies come to condole or ridicule Samson’s reduced condition. As he exchanges arguments with these various voices, we see Samson reevaluate his position and slowly regain hope and power. He doesn’t reveal his regained strength when led to the temple where the pagan god Dagon is being celebrated, and so pulls the whole temple down on the heads of the Philistines, sacrificing himself in the process. He conquers despair, fear, and blindness so that he can save his people.
What seems so timely about this story, and its lively, compelling presentation in Handel’s oratorio, is how Samson moves from paralyzing anguish to enlightened agency. In an Act I aria, “Total eclipse!” Samson bemoans his loss of “glorious light” and asks (in the poem—in the oratorio the friend Micah is given the question) why light is confined to the “tender eyes,” a site so vulnerable that it would have made more sense if the Creator had enabled the perception of light “through all parts diffus’d, that we might look at will through every pore.” Since light is the extended metaphor for wisdom, the loss of it is a double tragedy. In a careless, boastful moment Samson screwed himself and got his fellow Israelites into a devastating mess, giving primacy to the pleasure-loving worshipers of Dagon. The question of the poem and the oratorio is “How do you get yourself and your people out of a mess so great it seems almost impossible to overcome? How do you forgive yourself and move forward?” Good question for 2020.
Samson, at first, blames God—not an unusual move when looking for relief. “Why does the God of Israel sleep?” he asks. “Arise with dreadful sound, and clouds encompassed round!” I can relate to this—I’ve fantasized about the Second Coming. Wouldn’t Trump and his gang of thieves be gob-smacked if the Sistine Chapel came to life and threw them all into the lower depths? “In whirlwinds them pursue,” Samson sings, “The tempest of Thy wrath now raise,/Full fraught with vengeance due, /Till shame and trouble all thy foes shall seize!” The problem with this solution is that Samson thinks God’s action is separate from his own. It’s someone else’s job to set things straight—not mine. Samson feels so guilty he thinks his only recourse is to die, “…to expiate my crime, why should I live?”
Death, of course, is not the solution. The narrative turns in Act II, when Samson is distracted from his doomsday thoughts by Delilah, who comes to seduce Samson all over again—to offer to take care of him in his distress since “Life is not lost, though lost your sight/Let other senses taste delight.” But Samson doesn’t fall for her “warbling charms” and gets so angry that he sends her away and offers to fight his next visitor, the tormenting giant Harapha. Samson feels that his strength is still in his body, “returning with my hair.” By rejecting the false love of Delilah and threatening the giant who mocks him, Samson recognizes that strength is a renewable commodity, like hair. He starts to see himself as the agent of change—still a warrior who can defend his people.
Milton’s poem, like Handel’s oratorio, observes the Aristotelian unities of time (action within 24 hours), place (one location), and action (one dramatic problem). Thus in Act III, when Samson exacts revenge on the Philistines by pulling down the temple, we hear chaos in the orchestra as messengers run in to describe what happened. By today’s narrative standards Milton left the exciting part out—but the beauty of the unities is that they avoid the showy drama for a laser-like focus on the real topic: how do you turn things around, redeem a terrible mistake, overcome wickedness and return the world to forward movement? No sooner is Samson’s body brought back in a funeral cortege, and tributes paid—“Samson like Samson fell/Both life and death heroic”—than the most famous aria of the work is sung by the soprano Israelite Woman, “Let the bright seraphim.” It calls upon the angels to “Let their celestial concerts all unite/Ever to sound his praise in endless blaze of light.” Blind no more, Samson has enlightened his world by taking his strength back and recovering light for his people.
PacificMusic Works’ renowned director, Stephen Stubbs, has once again marshaled a talented cast of singers, bringing back the gifted tenor Aaron Sheehan— who sang a memorable Orphée for PMW in 2015—to sing the demanding role of Samson. It’s such a baroque thing to have the brawny hero a tenor instead of a hearty baritone or bass—but in the 18th century the heroic voices of opera were the high voices. Sheehan stood up to the demands of the role with stamina and verve. It is usually sung by a heroic tenor—I first saw this work performed by Jon Vickers at the Met in 1986—so it’s surprising that Sheehan can sing a high tenor role like Gluck’s Orphée, and yet bring the necessary power to the deeper, heavier tones of Samson. Bravo!
Equal bravos go to the expressive characters surrounding Samson, especially the counter-tenor Reginald L. Mobley whose flawless contralto never fails to amaze. Most male altos show some sign of a passagio, or have the piping tones of a choirboy, but Mobley has a round, powerfully smooth voice all up and down the range. Jonathan Woody’s Harapha was wonderfully dramatic, and Tess Altiveros was suitably cooing and seductive as Delilah, getting the only laugh of the evening when she stomped off stage with her nose in the air when Samson refused to fall for her seductions. The wonderful chorus—nineteen singers under the direction of Chorus Master Dr. Geoffrey Boers—navigated the lively Jehovah/Great Dagon choral fugue in a way that demonstrated the doubleness of Philistines vs Israelites with real excitement. They were terrific throughout.
As ever, the PacificMusicWorks Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Stubbs with concertmaster Tekla Cunningham, challenges the capacity of language to express its perfection and visual drama. It’s hard to believe anyone in the Seattle area can put down their money—the equivalent of six lattes—and see this brilliant orchestra embroider sound with a delicacy and excitement that rivals the finest orchestras in the world. Watching the orchestra create Handel’s full range of emotions, seeing the bows rise and fall, hearing the twice-looped, keyless trumpets blare out, and the harpsichord silver the air, the baroque guitar thrum—there’s nothing like it. I know I keep saying this, but you have to see baroque music to understand how wonderful it is.
I have just one little complaint. The librettist of this 1743 re-telling of Milton’s 1671 poem, Newburgh Hamilton, is given sole credit for the words, though his real gift was selecting key passages from Milton and distributing them into several voices. A comparison of the libretto to the poem shows how well this job was done, so I don’t begrudge Hamilton his credit—but the genius here is Milton, whose name should surely have been in the credits.
Milton is thought by many (myself included) to be the greatest poet in the English language—surely equal with Shakespeare but never yet exceeded. He and the Bard are equals in their mastery of the language—its music and rhythms, Shakespeare is more wide-ranging in his interests. But Milton—who thought of himself as a poet-priest because, in his blindness, he believed the Holy Spirit dictated his poems to him in his sleep—conveys a sense of the world beyond the world, a vast and fundamentally benign universe available to those who overcome despair and take agency in creation. That’s why this oratorio is a wonderful message to Americans in this dark political moment of aggressive cruelty and selfishness in high places. We can remain blind, depressed, despairing, waiting for some god or other force to do something, or we can notice the power renewing itself in us and take agency.
The message of Samson is hope—not just sacrificial hope, but analytical hope in the face of a wickedness that we somehow, through our own blindness, brought down on ourselves. (I know…I didn’t vote for him either…but somehow we didn’t work hard enough to prevent this disaster, and now we have to pull ourselves together and fix it). Each of us has a gift that can be used in defense of human rights and dignity. PacificMusicWorks has gifts in such abundance that you leave the concert knowing that light will always conquer darkness.