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The story of the innocent Susanna--whose nude bathing in a stream so excited two elders in her community that they charged her with all sorts of dirty things--is from the Apocrypha. Near the story's close, the young Israelite Daniel, clearly a budding lawyer, disproves the elders' claims by having each explain certain details without the other in the room. (In the Carlisle Floyd version, there's a twist, and the ending is horrifyingly different.) The story, as Handel and his unknown librettist tell it, takes more than two and a half hours. What we get in place of nail-biting drama is a marvelous portrait of the chaste Susanna, her trusting husband, Joacim, and the lascivious elders. There's also a great concentration on the plot's rural setting. Arias are filled with nature--Handel offers us a lovely pastoral setting, with a could-be-tragic story at its core; but neither Nature nor Susanna's good nature wind up sullied. This is a beautiful performance of the work, led by Peter Neumann with tenderness and, when required, with great verve. Neumann makes only a few cuts, equaling about 10 minutes and approved by Handel for the work's 1759 revival. Nicholas McGegan's account on Harmonia Mundi is note-complete and just as handsomely played. His Susanna, Lorraine Hunt, wins over this set's Elisabeth von Magnus, but only by a hair; our present Joacim, Syste Buwalda, however, is better than McGegan's Drew Minter. And Neumann's two elders are even nastier than McGegan's. It's a really close call--either performance of this attractive work is to be recommended. --Robert Levine
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Likewise, whatever its passing faults, this is a fine recording. Credit goes above all to Peter Neumann, one of the best, most natural Handel conductors around. I find his recordings wear well. The standard of musicianship is high, there is an unforced human warmth to the performance, and the feel for the specific spirit of the work is nearly infallible. This set certainly deserves its place on the shelf beside the very different (and sadly deleted) Nicholas McGegan version.
Two thoughts about casting. The role of Daniel was first played by "the Boy," and most female singers who attempt the part try (rightly, I think) to suggest a pre-pubescent male voice. Concerning the role of Joacim, Susanna's husband: the three recordings I know - Neumann, McGegan and a recent William Christie broadcast - use a countertenor, and all three singers have trouble with the tessitura. The part however was first sung by a female alto, Caterina Galli, who was also Handel's original Solomon. My guess is that were a singer like Sarah Connolly to tackle the part, it would change our perception of the role.
To start with the best things about this set, the choral and instrumental work is probably first-class. I say `probably' because even this is slightly dulled by the recording, but not enough to disguise the clear and distinct English of the chorus and the brilliant precision of their rapid passage-work in the closing number of act I, nor some very nifty and agile orchestral playing. In general the sense of style is apt and proportionate, and the soloists, whatever my reservations, are not only technically accomplished but rise very expressively to the beauty of the arias. Just now and again I would have liked a bit more liveliness to the tempo in the solo numbers, and of course the recording may have set me thinking this way, but the real problem I have is with the soloists' tone and enunciation. The first soloist we hear is Buwalda, and he gives me the most difficulty by far. His English elocution comes over as if he had a Kartoffel in his mouth, and everything I would not have liked about his voice anyway is made more unattractive by the engineering. He is the sort of countertenor who sounds as if his underpants are too tight, and I was visited by reminiscences of Chaucer's Pardoner. Elisabeth von Magnus as Susanna gets her tongue round English rather better, but I suspect better than she is allowed to sound. Tom Sol's English is more or less perfect, my only difficulty specific to him being his intrusive h's in coloratura music - `flay-hay-hay-hay-hay-hay-m' for `flame' and such like. John Elwes as the First Elder does very well (subject to my general strictures about the sound), but Ruth Holton does not seem to be very well served at all. In the touching little cameo role as the widowed servant all is well enough with her and her sweet little song `Ask if yon damask rose', but either her voice is not right for the prophet Daniel, or the recording lets her down, or both. Surely Daniel's denunciations of the lying Elders need a ringing declamatory tone, rather than the distant impression of a female vicar leading the responses at Evensong that we have here.
Everything that is important in the oratorio Susanna is by Handel, but it is not all by Handel nevertheless. The author of the libretto is unknown, but its diction is flat-footed and sometimes ridiculous, and of course the central action relates to the attempted assault on Susanna, and their subsequent allegations of adultery on her part to save their own skins at the expense of hers, by the lecherous and treacherous Elders. Strauss would have had one way of setting such a topic to music, but not only were conventions different in Handel's time, Handel did not have a first-class librettist of the calibre of Hoffmansthal or anywhere near it. It's hard to know how the librettist meant the utterances of the Elders to be understood. It may be that he intended them to be grotesque and ridiculous, but for me the author of `Say, will the vulture leave his prey/And warble thro' the grove', or of `Beneath the cypress' gloomy shade...I saw the lovely shepherd laid' is capable of taking more or less anything seriously. The performers have a delicate task in interpreting Handel's setting of such an episode, and all credit to them - I believe they get it about right. I differ slightly from the author of the excellent liner note in that I find no `humour' in Handel's approach - he surely had far too much taste to find anything funny in it. However to find the Elders ridiculous is not the same thing, and I believe the singers and the conductor alike get just the right tone of absurdity, along with the fear, defiance and revulsion, that goes into the startlingly tense and dramatic trio that Susanna sings with her assailants. Above all they remember, as Handel did, that whatever the dramatic considerations the first and foremost thing is to remain musical.
The liner note is exemplary. The German essay is thoughtful and helpful, and its English translation is genuine English and not translationese. The libretto is given in full, again with German equivalent, and there are notes on all the performers as well as the mission-statement of the recording strategy. I hardly need reiterate that this is not my idea of a perfect Susanna, but it has a lot going for it nevertheless. As matters stand currently, it looks as if the choice is between this Susanna and no Susanna, so it has been an easy choice for me.