During the years 1746-1747, Handel appealed to the patriotic feelings of his English countrymen with a series of propagandistic oratorios now known as the “victory oratorios”: Judas Maccabaeus, Joshua, Occasional Oratorio, and Alexander Balus. No doubt Handel’s interest in male-dominated, militant, aggressive themes was in response to England’s victory over the Catholic Stuarts. The three compositions that followed—Theodora (1749), Solomon (1748), and Susanna (1748)—seemed to be a deliberate shift away from the bellicose character of the “victory oratorios.” It is striking that all these oratorios reveal Handel’s interest in female figures; each represents a hymn of praise to the feminine. The resolute faith of the title figure stands at the center in Theodora, four women in Solomon are furnished individual characterizations through Handel’s music, and Susanna depicts an alluring and unwavering woman. Susanna gracefully endures not only harassment from two oleaginous, lusty men, but also withstands the ordeal of the trial for her alleged adultery.
The story of Susanna, from the Apocrypha, concerns the beautiful and virtuous Susanna; the lascivious, criminal Elders; and the young prophet Daniel, who proves her innocence. Though set against the background of the Babylonian Captivity, the Jewish exile in Babylon, Susanna has, as Winton Dean puts it in his classic study of Handel’s oratorios, something of “the charm of a Chaucer tale.” While there is a spot of humor in Handel’s treatment of the Elders that has led some to label Susanna a comic opera, the oratorio’s central themes—spotless innocence of youth versus senile lust, attempted rape, perjury, and Susanna’s narrowly averted execution— are anything but comic.
Rather, Handel sought to seriously develop the dramatic qualities and imbalanced nature inherent in the story through his musical treatment of each character. The music of Susanna’s husband, Joacim, and her father, Chelsias, is rather conventional, as the oratorio begins and ends with their moral observations. In contrast, the writing for Susanna and the Elders is a near psychodrama in miniature. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Act II trio in which Susanna rejects the advances of the two old men. Handel supplies each of the three a characteristic theme: for Susanna, a fearful, yet admonishing gesture; for the First Elder, a pathetic and torturous lament; and for the Second Elder, ferocious unison string writing suggesting an aggressive alertness.
Susanna’s arias are given sumptuous attention by Handel and serve as the unifying link in an oratorio of wide-ranging musical styles. In Act I, Handel sketches the portrait of a morally upright wife full of bliss and devotion. In Act II, Susanna’s aria “Crystal streams” depicts the beauty and nostalgia of a steamy, soporific, and sensual summer afternoon. After her rejection of the Elders, the gloom of tragedy fused with cool detachment in “If guiltless blood,” is haunting. Finally, the virtuosic compositional chops of Handel are on full display in the high-flying Act III celebratory bravura aria, “Guilt trembling.”
The nearly sympathetic portrayal of the two Elders, judges of the exiled Jewish community and “waxen old in wickedness,” is incredibly rich while at times painfully humorous. The entrance of the sanctimonious First Elder, dripping with self-pity, nearly parodies a scene out of opera seria. As Richard Wigmore notes, “he is initially more conscience-stricken than his companion-in-lechery; yet his hypocritical grief at Susanna’s imminent death, ‘Round thy urn,’ is the most morally repulsive moment in the oratorio.” The Second Elder is a noisy confirmed bachelor, whose passion surprises even himself. Handel revels in blustery unison string writing and bold melismas, resulting in a menacing and monstrous characterization that stands in brilliant contrast to the First Elder. This musical and dramatic antithesis prepares the conflicting accounts of the two Elders heard in the courtroom scene of Act III.
Unique to Susanna is the role of the Chorus of Israelites. Unlike that of any other Handel oratorio, this chorus is not given a consistent role. Akin to a Greek chorus, it stands outside the action, supplying a moral commentary that calls the community to look at its own corruption. Functioning nearly independent of the action, it participates directly only once, in the trial scene, as an animated crowd crying in unison: “Susanna is guilty, Susanna must bleed.” At the beginning, the Chorus of Israelites laments the Babylonian Captivity in “How long, O Lord,” setting the backdrop for the Susanna story. This mournful chaconne is a four-bar descending ground bass that in the Baroque era was symbolic of grief (think of Dido’s Lament). This is balanced with an impressive double fugue that closes Act I. The marriage of text and music is uncanny in this fugue; the first text, “Tremble guilt, for thou shalt find,” wrought with descending chromaticism, leads us directly to the fiery whirlwind of the second text, “Wrath divine outstrips the wind.” The musical imagery here is so vivid it needs no explanation. The finale of Act III, “Bless’d be the day,” a song of praise to Susanna’s virtue, is stylistically far closer in to Handel’s opera finales than to his other oratorios.
Susanna has been indicted by scholars for its imbalance. True, there is an awkward asymmetry between comedy and tragedy, high morals and base instincts, opera and oratorio. However, this imbalance is deliberate on the part of Handel, compelling the listener to consider the still-relevant themes—both sacred and secular—of this biblical story. We are, once again, reminded that Handel is, at his core, a man of the theatre.
- Notes by Ryan Turner, 2014