Welcome back to Covent Garden, Susanna. It has been 271 years since Handel’s oratorio last had an outing at the Royal Opera House, where it was premiered in February 1749. On the basis of this finely played and well sung performance in Covent Garden’s subterranean Linbury theatre in a co-production with the London Handel festival, Susanna’s absence seems altogether extraordinary.
Handel set the story from the Book of Daniel in which two elders try to assault Susanna as she bathes. When the repulsed elders accuse her of adultery, she is condemned to death, but Daniel intercedes to expose the elders’ lies and Susanna is saved. It is a highly theatrical tale, often painted, which Handel bulks up with an extensive backstory that establishes Susanna’s probity, stoicism and faith before her trials begin.
The piece suits the small Linbury space particularly well, and Patrick Milne conducts the London Handel Orchestra with increasing assurance, allowing the measured austerity of much of Handel’s writing to unfold unfussily. It provides the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker young artists who take the principal roles with an ideal platform.
Several seize their chances, in particular the South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, who has a backstory of her own, and whose tone and range in the title role mark her as a Fiordiligi and Donna Anna in the making. American countertenor Patrick Terry is a consistently strong Joacim, Susanna’s husband, and the Scottish-Iranian bass-baritone Michael Mofidian excels as her father, Chelsias. Yaritza Véliz rose to the occasion as Daniel in the final act. April Koyejo-Audiger, meanwhile, made the most of her aria as Susanna’s attendant. The Royal Opera chorus were splendid.
The production by Isabelle Kettle (no relation) translates the drama to a climate-ravaged community where tempers and bonds are fraying. Stagings of Handel oratorios can come alive with bold reinventions of this kind, as directors such as Peter Sellars and Barry Kosky have shown. But although there are striking moments – the ghostly silence after the elders’ assault, or Susanna’s final exit – the staging is too cluttered. There is so much in the score and so much sexual politics in the story that less would have been more.
• At the Linbury theatre, London, until 14 March.