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Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour’s <em>Vie des femmes célèbres</em>, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France.
17 May 2009

Athalia — Lincoln Center Great Performers Series

You won’t get much argument nowadays — you won’t get any from me — if you call Handel’s dramatic oratorios operas in all but name.

G. F. Handel: Athalia

Athalia: Simone Kermes; Josabeth: Sarah Fox; Joas: Johannette Zomer; Joad: Iestyn Davies; Mathan: James Gilchrist; Abner: Neal Davies. Balthasar Neumann Choir, Concerto Köln, conducted by Ivor Bolton. Lincoln Center Great Performers Series, Alice Tully Hall, May 16.


Many of them can be staged, and are; I have seen stagings of Susanna, Samson and Belshazzar, among the “sacred” oratorios — not to mention the famous video of Peter Sellars’ Theodora and stagings of the “secular” oratorios, Semele and Hercules. Several of the sacred oratorios — notably Esther and Athalia, from Racine, and Hercules, from Sophocles — are based to varying degrees on actual stage plays. Too, Handel had written some two dozen operas before he turned to oratorio, propelled as much by poor management decisions in managing his Italian singers as by the English demand for musical entertainment in English — much as he missed the scenery and special effects, he saw no reason not to exploit his gifts for characterization and high drama, and much to add in the use of a chorus, which became affordable when he gave up scenery, costumes and ballet.

Athalia, his third sacred oratorio and the one, critics agree, where he broke stride into greatness, is the melodramatic tale of one of the Old Testament’s most unusual figures, the queen who usurped the throne of Judea, massacred the royal family (including her own children and grandchildren), and restored the worship of Baal to Jerusalem. After seven years, she was overthrown and slain by the one grandson who escaped the massacre. Although her reputation has been obscured by that of her mother, Jezebel, it’s a heck of a story, and Racine (modeling his tale on Greek tragedy) summed it up in one extraordinary day, as does Handel. (Sukkoth, apparently — the celebrations in the Temple are of a harvest festival.)

As presented at the newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall by the Concerto Köln, Athalia was almost restive in its concert chains, straining to get out and be a drama at every twist and turn. All the fine singers were acting, and Concerto Köln made the most of Handel’s various accompaniments: the slashing strings (one section after another), for example, as the renegade priest Mathan reflected on what was in store for him now that God had defeated Baal, or the recorders that attempted to console the restless, guilt-ridden Athalia. Rhythms were crisp and danceable, and the tension of the story never relaxed.

It takes some skill to chew scenery when there is no scenery, and Simone Kermes, as Athalia, had it down — you wouldn’t want to get in her way. She was in character the moment she walked in: hair dyed red to match her flouncy orange and yellow gown and gold platform pumps, eyes starting from her head, every movement expressing a woman of emotional extremes. She underlined every extravagant syllable with voice and gesture (words like “gore” and “horror” got special attention), and her fruity, Germanic vibrato shook the hall. She looked and sounded not of the same world as the other singers — unlike her, mostly British — as was only proper for this alien, sympathetic-repulsive figure, tragic in her resolve to face the collapse of all her schemes.

The contrast this made with Sarah Fox as the confident (but not untroubled) Josabeth, Athalia’s daughter who has secretly preserved the last prince of the royal house, could hardly have been greater. Fox has a huge, bright, vibrato-free, clarion sound with perfect attention to every little turn and grace note, the perfect instrument for Josabeth’s passionate convictions — she could be a young Sutherland, except that her diction is outstanding. Josabeth is Handel’s voice of the idealist who will triumph — his librettist omitted the prophecies of Judaea’s decadence in Racine, which didn’t suit the mood in Oxford in 1733. Johannette Zomer was charming in the small trouser (well, knicker) role of Prince Joas, given to a boy in Handel’s day.

The men were not quite so exciting, so involved, as the women. James Gilchrist sang a thoughtful Mathan, humanizing the turncoat’s obsequiousness and despair just as Handel does. Iestyn Davies sang the role of the high priest, Joad, with confidence and lovely floating head tones, very much in the rather undemonstrative English countertenor tradition. Neal Davies sang Abner, one of Handel’s bass generals, such a joy, amid trumpets and drums, in the right throat — but though he hit all the notes, I found the notes themselves hollow, ill-supported, unresonant. His was the only second rate performance of the occasion, and he the only performer I would not be eager to hear again.

Two dozen is the maximum number I ever care to hear in a Handel chorus, no matter the size of the hall. The Balthasar Neumann Choir number twenty-five, but I forgive them, on account of the precision of their music-making and the subtle phrasing they impart to choruses of triumph, of prayer, of seductive luxury (when priests of Baal), of nuance to words like “groan” and “wound” — when Handel gets a word like that, he makes the music feel it, and the Neumann Choir made us feel it too.

John Yohalem

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