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Reviews

Anna Devin
01 May 2019

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Handel: Athalia - London Handel Festival

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Anna Devin

 

As Paul Henry Lang points out in his 1966 biography of Handel, both Handel and Racine were both in their element when ‘sketching women’, both admired matriarchs, and they excelled at depicting jealousy: ‘both of them drew an infinite variety of female characterisations, from virginal tenderness to murderous passion’.

Handel’s Athalia, performed at St John’s Smith Square by the London Handel Orchestra and Singers, is a good illustration of Lang’s observations. Similarly, of his argument that ‘what was congenial to Handel in Racine’s work was the purely internal tragedy; suffering, hesitation, love, jealousy, bravery, and renunciation. The action arises from the characters in spite of external events’. And, spicing up the Old Testament story with the dramatic intensity of Greek tragedy, what characters Racine and Handel give us. The eponymous Queen of Judah, daughter of Jezebel, is a ferocious tyrant: a wicked usurper who annihilates her son’s children, save Joas, to clear her own path to the throne and suffers a similarly violent death herself. In contrast, Josabeth, who, with her husband the High Priest Joad, is guardian to Joas - known as Eliakim and brought up ignorant of his origins and of his status as the only survivor of the House of David - epitomises the tenderness and devotion expected of a wife and mother, though she is not without resilience and nerve. Joad himself is a man of both human passion and divine insight. We have the Machiavellian Mathan, Athalia’s henchman and priest of the Baalites, and Abner, the upright Captain of the Jewish forces, who helps Joas regain his rightful throne.

That Handel’s violent monarch retains the overpowering presence of Racine’s queen is in no way thanks to Handel’s librettist, Samuel Humphreys, who had previously provided textual additions to Esther and the libretto for Deborah. Humphreys appears to have found Racine’s tragedy rather too strong: he simplified (Racine’s moral ambiguities did not survive), excised (explanatory detail and backstory was cut, obscuring motivations), watered down (Racine’s Joad had been a terrifying zealot), and weakened the ending: Athalia does not die at all, but is merely deposed, her future fate left unclear. The dramatic balance was also upset by Humphreys’ dispersal of the arias: Josabeth gets the lion’s share, Athalia one three (and only one of them a da capo).

But, if Humphreys’ text lacked a coherent dramatic structure, dynamic action and evident motivation, then that was not going to stop Handel supplying all three. Esther and Athalia, along with Deborah (1733) - another strong woman who rules in her own right, though in that case legitimately - mark Handel’s early experiments with the oratorio form. But, while Esther and Deborah are largely adaptations of earlier music (the 1727 Coronation anthems, theBrockes-Passion and Il Trionfo del Tempo),Athalia (though it reuses a little material from the Brockes-Passion), is essentially a newly composed work, commissioned by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University where it was performed in the Sheldonian Theatre on 10th July 1733 as part of the ceremonies surrounding the Public Act (the conferring of degrees), an occasion on which Handel himself was probably awarded an honorary degree.

And, Athalia represents a big step forward in Handel’s handling of the oratorio format. In particular, the Chorus are fully integrated into the drama - representing both the Jews and the Baalites as well as priests and young virgins - and the London Handel Singers were in terrific voice, capturing the different tenors and sentiments, expanding ambiently into eight-part textures. The Chorus even interpolate in the arias themselves, and supplement the recitative exchanges, creating exciting momentum. Typical is the moment in Act 1 when Mathan urges Athalia, who is stricken with terror at the vision of a young slayer which has come to her in a nightmare, “Swift to the temple let us fly, to know/What mansion hides this youthful foe”, as Abner declares that he will “haste the pontiff to prepare/For this black storm of wild despair”. The concluding couplet of the Chorus of Attendants, “The traitor, if you there descry,/Oh, let him by the altar die”, here whipped up enormous dramatic energy. The ‘Allelujah’ which closes Act 1, and the Israelites’ declaration of unanimity and faith - “With firm united hearts, we all/Will conquer in his cause, or fall” - had all of the majesty and muscularity of Messiah’s grand choruses.

Anna Devin’s titular tyrant was disdainful from the first, fairly spitting the words of her initial accompanied recitative and matching the restless agitation of the strings’ introduction to her first aria: it was evident that this was a queen on the emotional rack. Thwarted by Joas’ innocence and integrity, in her plan to abduct the young boy whom she fears, this Athalia bristled with vengeful fury, as Devin raced buoyantly through the incessant runs and riles. The Queen’s final aria, “To darkness eternal/And horrors infernal/Undaunted I’ll hasten away”, was as fiery as the hell Athalia imagines. This was a performance in which dramatic and musical values convincingly cohered.

The role of Josabeth finds Handel in somewhat sentimental vein. Grace Davidson delivered Josabeth’s many lyrical outpourings with fitting serenity of manner and loveliness of tone - Act 2’s ‘Through the land so lovely blooming’ was particularly fluid and smooth’ - but her soprano sometimes lacked the colour and nuance which would infer the emotional and dramatic engagement which is somewhat lacking in Humphreys’ text. The duet between Josabeth and Joas which ends Act 2 was, however, one of the highlights of the performance: here Davidson’s fragmented vocal line captured all of Josabeth’s breathless fear, and Joas’s sympathy and understanding were conveyed with care by treble James Thomson, who was sensitively accompanied by the upper strings.

Rupert Enticknap was a confident and commanding Joad; the countertenor’s recitatives at the start of Act 3 were particularly striking and textually pointed. The ironically tender accompaniment and flowing phrasing of Mathan’s appeal for “Gentle airs, melodious strains” to becalm the agitated Queen’s woes were complemented by Anthony Gregory’s mellifluous delivery and sweet tone - he was every bit the oleaginous intriguer. The small role of Abner was well sung by baritone Christian Immler.

Laurence Cummings conducted with ceaseless energy and flexibility: tempi were swift, orchestral rhythms punchy, timbres finely delineated. The arrival of two baroque horns and two baroque trumpets for the closing chorus was the icing on the instrumental cake.

The musico-dramatic persuasiveness of this LHF performance was confirmed by the fact that, though English oratorios came about in response to the failure of his opera company and the public’s disaffection with the opera seria genre, as the closing Chorus of the Israelites rang out - “Give glory to His awful name,/Let ev’ry voice His praise proclaim” - I found myself reflecting on how successful a staged presentation of Athalia would surely be.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Athalia HWV52

Athalia, Queen of Judah - Anna Devin, Josabeth, Wife of Joad - Grace Davidson, Joad, High Priest - Rupert Enticknap, Mathan, Priest of Baal - Anthony Gregory, Abner, Captain of the Jewish Forces - Christian Immler Joas, King of Judah - James Thomson (Treble from Westminster Abbey), Conductor - Laurence Cummings, London Handel Orchestra, London Handel Singers.

St John’s Smith Square, London; Monday 29th April 2019.

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