The final event of my Handel Festival this year was Athalia, a Handel oratorio written in 1733 and first performed during his brief summer sojourn in Oxford. It’s a strange beast, with ingredients that would make for a splendid opera seria in the hands of Metastasio. Just think: a murderous queen who has wiped out her own grandchildren in order to rule Jerusalem; an heir to the throne raised in secret; the clash between the old Jewish religion and the newly-revived worship of Baal! Surely that’s crying out for at least a couple of overly showy arias?! However, such foreign indulgences were trimmed from Handel’s oratorios, reflecting the changing tastes of British audiences, and the exuberance of Italian libretti is replaced by a self-consciously worthy text adapted by Samuel Humphreys from Racine. It’s peppered by the kind of awkward 18th-century rhymes you can see approaching with grim determination from a mile away. Fortunately, Handel livens things up with fine music and reliably rousing choruses; and I confess that, by the end, my instinctive suspicions of the oratorio genre had softened. Somewhat.
The actual plot in Athalia is pretty thin, especially for someone used to the infernal complications of operas like Venceslao or Berenice. We begin at the Temple in Jerusalem, where the High Priest Joad and his wife Josabeth are preparing to celebrate the joyful festival of Shavuot. They’re accompanied by the general Abner, who has kept faithful to his God while his more opportunistic colleagues (like Mathan, who we’ll meet presently) have converted to the worship of Baal. While Josabeth and the chorus of Young Virgins welcome the beautiful day, Joad’s own thoughts are of a darker hue. How has God allowed Israel to fall under the darkness of Baal? Will he protect his Chosen People? Meanwhile, in her nearby palace, Athalia wakes with a start from a nightmare. She has dreamed of her mother (the famous Jezebel), who warned Athalia of God’s wrath. To add insult to injury, her dream ended when a beautiful boy, dressed as a Jewish priest, approached Athalia, only to stab her. The alarmed queen finds no comfort from Baal and orders her captain Matham to prepare for a visit to the Jewish Temple. She’s sure that the boy in her dream has significance and is determined to track him down.
Cue panic in the Temple. Abner has overheard Athalia’s plans and rushes back to warn Josabeth, who frets over the news. Abner assures her that the boy he assumes to be her own son will be safe. But Josabeth is hiding a secret. This little boy, who is known as Eliakim and who believes himself an orphan raised by loving foster parents, is actually Joas, the last surviving grandson of Athalia, whom Josabeth smuggled away from the slaughter and has raised in hiding. (I know: it isn’t helpful that everyone’s name is so similar: we have Joas, Joad and Josabeth.) Athalia arrives and questions the boy, recognising him immediately as the child from her dream, but she doesn’t have the necessary force to carry him off in the face of Josabeth’s protestations. While the queen departs to make arrangements, High Priest Joad makes a startling announcement to his flock. He’s been waiting a long time for this but, now he’s convinced of Joas’s good character, he announces that the boy is their king. Much rejoicing ensues and, when the vindictive Athalia returns, she is confronted by this unexpected news. Her grandson, and the true king, lives. Thwarted, Athalia is deserted by her soldiers and flees, leaving Joad and Josabeth blessed and victorious, and the youthful Joas on the throne of Israel.
The cast included some familiar faces along with some new discoveries for me. Anna Devin, whom I first saw as Semele, was cast as the formidable Athalia, whose music comes closest to the drama of opera seria. Indeed, she enters with the dramatic rendition of her nightmare, accompanied by agitated strings and a minor key, and complaining that sleep has no rest for monarchs, in words that have been freely adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry IV (compare: ‘Is sleep, that frees the wretch from woe, To majesty alone a foe?’ with: ‘Then, happy low, lie down! Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’). Devin was excellent at the dramatic recitative and accompagnato that followed, culminating in the gory vision of her mother Jezebel’s death. Later she actually enjoys two rage arias: My vengeance awakes me, which concludes with a truly fierce da capo and a fiery sweep upwards; and Athalia’s final aria, To darkness eternal, in which Devin showed off some excellent coloratura and very quick, glittering singing.
The two soldiers have less fulsome roles, with Mathan (sung by the tenor Anthony Gregory) coming off with the smaller part. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed his light, clear voice, which seemed to be perfect for Baroque music and which was shown off to advantage in his aria Gentle airs, melodious strains, in which he was often accompanied by the cello alone. His religious opposite, Abner, was sung by the baritone Christian Immler, whom I haven’t heard before; but that’s an omission I shall rectify as often as possible. He was a shining example of crisp delivery and diction, hitting all the notes and managing coloratura with effortless ease. Baroque arias for lower-pitched voices aren’t always very exciting, but Abner has some good music: When storms the proud to terrors doom, for example, which despite the confused English of its libretto has some fine coloratura. Similarly, Ah, canst thou but prove me, in Act II, is supple and powerful and Immler rose to the challenge with distinction. Sophisticated and graceful, his is a baritone worth looking out for again. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words about James Thomson, the treble from Westminster Abbey who took on the role of seven-year-old Joas – the revealed king. While his voice wasn’t always quite as secure as it could have been, he had some lovely high notes and didn’t seem remotely daunted: it was a real pleasure to see the next generation showing its promise.
Of course, it would be foolish to imagine that Athalia, as the title character, is also the most significant character in the opera. I’ve seen enough Baroque works now to know that the protagonists are often found elsewhere; and that was true here. The heart of the opera lies with Joad and Josabeth, the couple who have loyally brought up the hidden King of Israel, and whose faith in God is matched only by the strong love they have for one another. Indeed, the opera ends with a beautiful duet between them: Joys in gentle trains appearing / Softest joys would but deceive me, in which they reaffirm their love and their commitment to share all their joys and happiness with one another. Joad, who is slightly less prominent, was sung by Rupert Enticknap, whom I’ve seen in many different operas by now. I was delighted to see that he excels in the long, smooth, unadorned lines of oratorio music: he has the same kind of voice as Iestyn Davis, or Philippe Jaroussky, which fits very well with the purer sacred kind of music. His accompanagti and recitatives were beautiful, almost unaccompanied by the orchestra, although he still seemed a little uncomfortable when required to embark on heavy coloratura: Gloomy tyrants, we disdain occasionally sounded forced rather than smoothly rippling.
The protagonist of the opera is, without doubt, Josabeth. She is the voice of faith and hope, who rouses the choruses of the Israelites at the beginning, who has saved and raised Joas – thus preserving the true line of David – and who stands firm against the seductive inferences of Mathan. She is true to her husband and to her God and, although to modern eyes this might make her a touch less interesting than the passionate Athalia, she nevertheless has some gorgeous music. And, in the shape of Grace Davidson, an excellent interpreter. Davidson’s voice is pretty, pure and gentle, perfect for the role. Like Enticknap, she benefitted from the orchestra being choked back almost to nothingness when she sang, offering her lovely voice a blank canvas. That purity came into play again in Faithful cares in vain extended, in which Josabeth fears for her foster-son. All in all, it was a lovely performance – a different kind of voice to Devin’s, true, but both were very fitting to their respective characters, and the two ladies were definitely the most memorable parts of the evening for me.
As if to compensate for the pared-back orchestration in oratorio arias, Handel goes whole-hog on the choruses, developing a wall-of-sound technique that anticipates Phil Spector by some centuries. There are drums, trumpets and horns enough to thrill an excitable little heart like mine, and the London Handel Singers offered a splendid performance that left the rafters ringing. All in all, it was a triumphant end to my experience of the Festival, and another Handel work crossed off my list. I can’t pretend that I don’t still find opera seria far more exciting, but I’m working up to the point where I can seek out further oratorios and appreciate them for what they are, rather than judging them by the standards of earlier 18th-century works. A fine evening, and a fine case; and some more names to add to my watchlist. Who could want anything more?