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Handel Susanna A theatrical triumph
Guildhall School of Music and Drama 4 March 2003
(Review by PGW with appendix SUSANNA: AN INTRODUCTION by Stephen Medcalf)

Handel's dramatic oratorio Susanna (1749), which was new to me and would have been so to most of the GSMD audience, has a powerful text attributed to Newburgh Hamilton, derived from the Book of Daniel in the Apocrypha. It is a nasty little shocker about a merciless rape (graphically represented in this production) by two corrupt Elders, old men who use their judicial status to discredit their victim, and are only brought to justice in the nick of time by the intervention of Daniel as a deus ex machina, who saves Susanna from imminent stoning to death, cutting through the deception at a stroke and thereby ensuring a happy ending.

If you are rusty on the details, but familiar with Susanna and the Elders as a titillating subject for classical painters, all is made clear on Spaightwood Galleries' exemplary website; another click of the mouse brings you the complete libretto!

We are indebted once again to The Guildhall School of Music and Drama for rescuing another neglected masterpiece, one of which I have been unable to locate any complete recording. The first of two student casts acquitted themselves splendidly and the orchestra gave good support under Noel Davies' direction, though a little more movement in the slower arias would occasionally have helped and the strings sounded stretched technically at times. (These opera productions, prestigious though they be in the life of the institution, have to be mounted with relatively restricted rehearsal time, alongside all the other claims upon the student participants' busy programmes.)

Alexandra Rigazzi-Tarling rose movingly to grasp the starring role as the eponymous heroine, Benjamin Hulett and Freddie Tong were duly villainous, and we were spared nothing of Susanna's assault, trapped in the walled garden. Gudrun Olafsdottir as Joacim came back across the sea to be reunited with his blameless wife, who narrowly escaped the prescribed stoning, and Claire Booth took her every opportunity as a silent but involved onlookerthroughout the first two Acts, revealing herself as Daniel at the climax to take centre stage in the drama. All are stylish, well prepared Handel singers.

But what demands world-wide attention to this Susanna is the overall production, a triumph by a great team headed by Stephen Medcalf, with Designer Nicky Shaw, Lighting Simon Corder and Movement Denni Sayer. The clever and economical sets, based on blue-green floor and walls, adapted to garden and court room. With thecast costumed in formal 17 C attire, suggesting a community of Protestant zealots, the chorus was strongly characterised and the predicament of Susanna during her husband's absence was brought to life poignantly.

The whole thing was riveting and should not be missed by opera lovers interested to see how limited budgets can, paradoxically, lead to artistic benefits, concentrating attention upon essentials.

The inspired directorial touches, too numerous and subtle to detail in this first night review*, were never at odds with the gravity of the situations and Handel's music.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Following discussions with the Director, I am grateful for his permission to share with readers the notes of a briefing talk for the student performers:

SUSANNA: AN INTRODUCTION by Stephen Medcalf (Adapted from the text of a talk given by the Director on the opening day of rehearsals)


Why did we choose to stage Susanna? It is after all, Dramatic Oratorio, which was never intended to be staged.

We have long since felt that a piece of Handel of some description would suit the students on the current 2nd year of the Opera Course. It has been very much a trend in the opera profession to stage oratorios. I think it began with Jonathan Miller's staging of the Matthew Passion, then Glyndebourne had an enormous hit with Handel's last oratorio Theodora, one of the most moving theatrical experiences I have ever had. ENO had similar success with the John Passion and next season Welsh National Opera will be staging Handel's Jephtha.

Based on a story from the Apocrypha (books of the Old Testament no longer included in the bible), Susanna deals with the attempted rape of the virtuous Susanna, wife of Joachim, by two hypocritical Elders; and her eventual salvation, aided by the young prophet Daniel. It contains many fine arias and ensembles, knock out Choruses and plenty of suffering: ideal, it seemed to us, to attempt a staging.

No need to justify it on musical grounds, then, but in dramatic terms it is problematic: At first sight the plot of Susanna might seem a little thin and the action rather limited. But the more I looked at the piece the more I felt that Handel, possibly in spite of his anonymous librettist, had given us plenty of drama where we most need it: i.e. in the inner conflict of the characters, the conflict between characters and the conflict between characters and the chorus.

The Characters:
Although at first it might seem so, Susanna's virtue is not a certainty: her first accompagnato : "What means this weight that in my bosom lies" followed by the aria: "This alone Great God I crave, let me innocent before you rise from the devouring grave." reveals the depth of her insecurities. She has a premonition of disaster and she is anything but confident in her salvation. We have to ask ourselves why.

Joachim, in his turn is unreasonably anxious about his seven day journey and the potential for his "nest" to be despoiled. He encourages Susanna to be open and friendly to all true believers, but it seems that at some level he doesn't quite trust her. The exact reason for the journey is kept completely obscure, so I find myself asking: is he testing her in some sense? Could that be at least part of the reason for his mysterious journey?

The two Elders are wonderfully drawn characters: both struggling to come to terms with their earthly lusts, both shocked that they are capable of feeling such base desires for Susanna, but unable to deny them. I sense the 1st Elder would never act on his impulses if it wasn't for a chance conversation with the 2nd Elder, who reveals that he feels the same way. To begin with we sense only relief that he is not the only one harbouring guilty secrets, but then he is swept along by the passion and determination of the 2nd Elder, and hasn't the courage to call a halt, even though his heart is never really in it. I'm reminded of the rape seen in that Jodie Foster film Accused where a group of men gang rape a girl over a pin-ball table and each one is spurred on by peer pressure and the delusion that she has invited the assault and that she is actually enjoying it.

Then there is Chelsias, a proud and over-possessive father, who has brought his daughter up in fear of the Lord, perhaps to an unhealthy degree. Has he with his extreme puritanical beliefs unwittingly convinced her that she is not destined to be one of God's elect? And where is the loving father when his daughter stands accused? Conveniently absent until she is proved innocent?

Even the attendant's relationship with Susanna is by no means straight forward. Susanna is reflecting wistfully (and at some length) on the absence of Joachim who will be gone for a mere few days. When her attendant explains how she lost her own lover in tragic circumstances, Susanna still seems pre-occupied with her own suffering: "Thy plaintive strains my inmost sorrows move, for well Susanna knows the pangs of love."

Then there is Daniel, so in love with chastity, 'thou cherub bright' that you feel he might just be in love with chastity personified: i.e. Susanna.

It is by mining beneath the surface for all these unresolved tensions between characters that we can more than make up for the potentially static nature of large parts of Act 1 and Act 3.

The Chorus
The Chorus in Susanna seems to me to operate like a Greek Chorus: able to transform themselves in a moment from protagonists to commentators, from members of the community to avenging furies, carrying out divine justice. One of the joys of staging an oratorio is the privilege of staging these tremendously complex and profound compositions, far surpassing anything the genre permitted Handel to compose for an opera.


The story is ostensibly set in the ancient city of Babylon of the Old Testament. The
Hebrews are living under the oppressive regime of Babylonian King, Nebucadnezzar. They are not permitted to practice their religion openly, but special privileges are granted to a number of intelligent and useful young Hebrews of which one was Daniel, (who later made a bit of a name for himself interpreting the King's dreams). We certainly didn't want to be too literal about the location and period of our setting. Besides, we have no clear image of these ancient societies beyond Hollywood: righteous hordes, dressed in robes and jellabas, swarming through the desert with the odd bush catching fire around them.

What seemed vital to us was to create a strong sense of community; a community very close to god, abiding strictly by his laws, but suffering under oppression; whose beliefs and ways of worship are constantly under threat from the heathen; one that must constantly fight to preserve the integrity of its faith from the danger of other faiths inspired by the Devil.

We wanted to find a society in which the only acceptable form of conjugal love is sanctified by the Lord through marriage and in which any kind of adultery or fornication outside wedlock is regarded as a heinous crime, punishable by death; a society where anyone who doesn't have a legitimate outlet for their passions may lock up their illicit desires inside themselves where they rot and fester and eventually explode in violence.

We had the idea of setting the story in a community inspired by the English Puritans of the mid 17th century. The more we looked at it, the more it seemed the perfect period and environment for the story.

Puritanism was an extreme form of Protestantism that developed soon after the reformation in England. Inspired by John Calvin, its basic belief was that the Church of England should be reformed according to the 'pure' word of God; hence the term.

They believed that the Bible was the revealed word of God from beginning to end, authoritative not only for doctrine but for every aspect of ecclesiastical and human life, an absolute code in everything it dealt with. Unlike the Anglican Protestants, they believed that it was the expression of God's will in all matters: theological, moral, military, economic, judicial; and even had the last word in dress-code. The Anglicans believed that some of God's ordinances in the bible could be re-interpreted with common sense by each new and different age. Puritans held that they stood absolute and for all time.

What was important was the relationship of the individual with God through the scriptures, and the more intermediaries there were between the individual and god, the more priests and bishops and archbishops, the more opportunities there were for the word of God to be corrupted. The Puritans advocated a primitive and essential form of worship. Under their influence, during the late 16th and early 17th centuries religious practices were slowly changed:

In many churches vestments were scrapped, along with kneeling for communion and making the sign of the cross at baptisms. Even the use of a ring in the marriage ceremony was abolished.

Altar rails were torn down, because they separated the pastor from his flock. Stain glass windows were smashed, paintings destroyed crosses were dragged out and burned. Visual depictions were to have no place in worship: they could not teach the faith nor could they be thought of as ornament, which was vain and popish. The image was ousted by the word, because images could not possibly be without danger of worshiping and idolatry. These acts continued, approved of by some governments, opposed by others, gathering momentum until 1641 when parliament authorized the removal of all communion rails and declared: "all crucifixes, scandalous pictures of any one or more persons of the Trinity and all images of the Virgin Mary shall be taken away and abolished."

The structure of worship also changed. The Puritans believed that the pastor's job was to inflame the people with the word of the Lord, and preaching became regarded as more important than prayer. Praying itself became less and less formal, with improvised prayer being more highly regarded than formal reading and responses. They devoted considerable time to Bible reading and interpretation, and many cases acquired an extraordinary knowledge of the scriptures. Music retained its importance in Puritan churches but ironically was simplified to the singing of psalms and hymns in unison. Polyphony was regarded as too worldly.

Most puritans operated under the umbrella of the Anglican Church, trying to reform it from within, but some felt the need to separate and form radical new sects, very much influenced by the Puritan ideas, but taking them to even further extremes. So we have the beginnings of the non-conformist movement, the Baptists and Quakers, for example, whose chapels were so stripped or ornament that they often became indistinguishable from lecture halls.

Parallels with the Old Testament
During the English civil war of the 1640s these ideas became inextricably associated with the parliamentary side against the monarchists, so much so that it became known as the Puritan Revolution. Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the parliamentarians, came to see himself as a second Moses leading God's chosen English people out of the Egyptian slavery of Charles 1's reign, through the political wilderness towards a distant promised land. In fact many Puritans were given to drawing close parallels between events described in the bible and developments occurring during their own lifetimes. It became a tradition in the late 16th century for Puritans to name their children after characters from the bible: Joshua, Moses, Daniel, (perhaps Joachim or Susanna?); some even named their children after a virtue (Mercy, Faith and Hope) or even a command: two famous Puritan brothers were named Praise-God and Fear God.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the Puritan revolution was its very particular view of human nature and its relationship with its maker. The doctrine of Original Sin was at the forefront of their thinking: Throughout his theological writings, the founding father of Puritanism, John Calvin, emphasised man's fallen state: "There is more worth in all the vermin of the world than there is in man", and that the human mind was "a sink and lurking place for every sort of filth." Man was "nothing but a worm of the earth, nothing but dust and ashes and rotting flesh." By stressing man's sinfulness, Calvin found it was easier to justify the notion (shared by the Puritans) that God had pre-ordained those people to be elected for salvation.

This rather negative view of humanity took its toll on those of a less naturally positive disposition: many nurtured a deep sense of their own unworthiness and a great many Puritan's struggled for years before they could finally convince themselves that they were saved. Calvin's emphasis on human unworthiness intensified tendencies to an obsessive introspection and produced the depressions and extremes of self-loathing which afflicted many individual English Puritans. One shall serve as an example:

A gentleman by the name of Nehemiah Wallington, a London artisan, experienced a deep spiritual crisis during his adolescent years during which he was consumed by feeling of despair over what he called his 'most vile and sinful corruption'. These difficulties stemmed from a growing conviction that he was destined for hell, a belief which appears to have been fuelled by his inability to come to terms with his emerging sexuality. Successive bouts of depression and anxiety brought him to the verge of complete mental breakdown. Today it is regarded as a commonplace that low self esteem can lead people to sexual and non-sexual violence against themselves and other people. It is not surprising that feelings of unworthiness lead many an apparently worthy puritan to acts of adultery and debauchery. In a sense, they were only living up to God's own expectations of them.

Woman's role in the spiritual community
Any faith placing so much emphasis on the doctrine of original sin was not going to be great for female equality. In fact, the Puritans placed great importance on the role of the head of the household in nurturing the spiritual development of his family. By reducing the role of the priest in society, a correspondingly larger role was played by the real fathers. "That person, who by the providence of God hath the place of a husband, a father, a master in his house, the same also by the light of nature hath the principality and sovereignty therein and rules over wife, children, servants."

By definition, all the puritan beliefs and practices could be justified by chapter and verse, and this last aspect is no different:

"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing." (Ephesians 5/22)

"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home." (Corinthians 14/34)

The virtue of a wife is not a glory to herself, but a glory to her husband . As it says in Proverbs:

" virtuous woman is a crown to her husband: but she that maketh ashamed is as rottenness in his bones."

Or as paraphrased by the librettist of Susanna in the final chorus:

"A Virtuous wife shall soften fortunes crown,
She's far more precious than a golden crown".

The world we have created for Susanna has been inspired by the idea of a Puritan community of the mid 17 Century, but has also been influenced by the ideas and architecture of other non-conformist religions, including Baptists, Quakers and Shakers. One of the most important inspirations to our work was the film Witness, with Harrison Ford, set in a modern day Amish community in America: especially as a great example of the palpable tension between extraordinary restraint in dress, life-style, and morals and man's undeniable sexuality.

Stephen Medcalf

Pict Laurence Burns: Alexandra Rigazzi-Tarling as Susanna

© Peter Grahame Woolf