It takes enterprise to put on a challenging oratorio such as Handel's rarely heard "Samson," enterprise that rewarded conductor James Vail and his forces at St. Alban's Church in Westwood on Sunday afternoon.
A number of factors worked in Vail's favor. The acoustics at this modestly sized place of worship happen to be a solo singer's and chorus' delight. Second, the small scale the conductor opted for--19 instrumentalists using gut strings and baroque bows and St. Alban's 45-member choir--qualified the performance as an historically informed one.
And not least is the beauty and dramatic scope of the score, which deals with the eponymous hero's development of humanity through his suffering, rather than his spectacular destruction of the Philistine Temple. Leave that and Dalila's sensuous seduction to Saint-Saens' opera.
Tenor Michael Sells, singing the title role, put himself to its full range of affect --from oppressed to vengeful to beatific. Although the best-known, his was not the only excellent voice. Frances Young, the Dalila, displayed a soprano of gossamer-sheer purity as well as body. Baritone Jonathan Grant sang his lament as the fatherly Manoah in rich, mellifluous tones and with uncommon breath control. Bass Hector Vasquez made the difficult role of Harapha sound easy and Adelaide Sinclair's bright, lyric mezzo enlivened the sympathetic rhetoric of Micah.
All met the considerable melismatic challenges with distinction and the well-balanced choir made its necessary impact. Vail led the piece with spirit--except for the occasional dead spot, where he let rhythms flag.