Review / Exciting new look at Handel’s ‘Susanna’

Music / “Susanna”, an Oratorio by George Frideric Handel. At The Playhouse, September 1. Reviewed by TONY MAGEE

Jacqueline Porter in the title role of Susanna… her beautiful operatic soprano voice soared through the theatre. Photo by Hou Leong

IN this most entertaining production of Handel’s “Susanna”, it is the chorus and orchestra that carry the piece along with intensity, drama and pace.

In particular, the excellent and captivating choreography by Caroline Stacey and the superb singing by the chorus, who are also very engaging and visually compelling, are in turns joyous, defiant, menacing and judgmental.

The orchestra, conducted by Brett Weymark, provides magnificent, melodious and sensitive support. First violin and leader Peter Clark is very animated in his playing and leads with passion and assurity. All members of the orchestra appeared to be “in the moment” and almost as one with the cast, very close to the stage and very visual throughout the performance. I loved their complete mode of inclusion in the piece.

The solo vocal performances were variable. Singing the title role of Susanna was Jacqueline Porter, whose beautiful operatic soprano voice soared through the theatre. She sang the part with lyric beauty and feeling. Also excellent was Jeremy Kleeman as Kenan, an Elder. His bass voice is pitch perfect, wide ranging and he sings with excellent diction. Also noteworthy was Keren Dalzell who sang the role of Susanna’s assistant, Anthea, with compassion and tenderness. Towards the end of the piece, the young prophet Daniel enters, sung by Alison Robertson, who is a welcome breath of fresh air in a dazzling costume. She sang and played her role with great presence as well as excellent comic timing.

One scene in particular, the entrance of Ezra and Kenan, offers a most compelling reason for staging the performance as opposed to a traditional oratorio style concert presentation. The chorus and the two elders descend into a ribald sexual fantasy, bodies entwined in a seething mass of ecstasy all over the floor and where gender boundaries seem blurred. There is no doubt however, about the character and intentions of the elders as they make their sinister moves and plot to rape Susanna.

The set is simple and bereft of time or place. A scene of chains dangling from the roof to the floor creates a maze through which the performers dart and weave. It is almost at the risk of becoming visually tiring, but thwarted by a clever piece of stagecraft at the conclusion of the oratorio where the chains are pulled back by the chorus, indicating a sense of liberation and freedom for Susanna.

Director Caroline Stacey and producers Tobias Cole and Kelly Corner (for Handel in the Theatre) are to be congratulated on this imaginative and highly entertaining piece of theatre, which with its contemporary staging, aided by colourful and dramatic lighting, reinvent an old art-form into something quite new and exciting.

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