Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Puccini's Le Willis: a fine new recording from Opera Rara

The 23-year-old Giacomo Puccini was still three months from the end of his studies at the Conservatoire in Milan when, in April 1883, he spotted an announcement of a competition for a one-act opera in Il teatro illustrato, a journal was published by Edoardo Sonzogno, the Italian publisher of Bizet's Carmen.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

O Lieb! presents the lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté. Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well. With these settings by Franz Liszt, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt’s approach to song.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):