Following the end of the 1733 London opera season, George Frideric Handel headed to Oxford with his first two oratorios, Esther and Deborah and the newly composed Athalia. While the first two were well enough received, Athalia was a triumph, with newspaper claims that 3,700 people attended the performances. The story of the defeat of the wicked daughter of Jezabel, worshipper of the god Baal, who, on the death of her son Ahzaiah, usurped the throne of Judah and attempted to have all possible claimants to the throne executed, appealed to the prominently Jacobean Oxonians who could see in the boy Joas, the true heir who becomes king in the triumphant conclusion of the piece, an echo of the Stuart pretenders.
Librettist Samuel Humphries based his libretto on the Racine play Athalie (1691) and managed to make the dramatic plot even more static than had the French master. This was a challenge for director Lindy Hume, a challenge that was not entirely successfully overcome. In her previous Handel production for Pinchgut, Theodora, Hume brilliantly uncovered the dramatic impetus of the piece, contrasting the authoritarian regime of Valens with the Christians headed by Irene. In Athalia, the contrasting sides were less clear. Clarity was not helped by the odd choice to paraphrase the English libretto in the surtitles. Admittedly, Humphries’ choice of words was sometimes unfortunate. The piece begins with the words ‘blooming virgins’, which sounds more like Alf Garnett on a tear (‘Bloomin’ virgins? Yew ain’t goin ter find ’em around ’ere’) than the call to prayer that was intended. However, reading different words to those we were hearing had an unnecessarily alienating effect. In an attempt to invigorate the piece, Hume took a cue from Vivid, but Matthew Marshall’s flamboyant lighting too often overwhelmed rather than supported the performers. Melanie Liertz’s abstract set of triangular, shard-like forms resembled a plethora of pyramids or an explosion of crystals.
The soloists struggled to present their characters with varying effect. Surprisingly, Athalia does not have a great deal of stage time, but whenever Emma Pearson swept on to the stage the dramatic temperature rose. Vocally, the part held no problems for her technically and she gave a superb account of her show-stopping aria 'My vengeance awakes me'. She even managed to find some vulnerability in this monstrous woman. Like Pearson, Brenton Spiteri is a true stage animal; he made much of the rather thankless role of Mathan, Athalia’s attendant, here promoted to her lover. His lean, agile tenor and superb diction were heard to great effect in the beautiful 'Gentle airs, melodious strains'. His final despairing aria 'Hark His Thunders Round Me Roll', was a dramatic as well as vocal highlight.
Villainy usually plays better on the stage than goodness, and that was the case here. Until the moment near the end of the oratorio when, surprisingly, she struck Mathan, Miriam Allan’s Josabeth came across as rather bland. Josabeth, wife of the Christian high priest Joad and protector of the rightful heir, Joas, is the voice of decency and piety, and though those virtues are admirable they are not necessarily exciting. Josabeth is, however, a strong, determined woman who is prepared to stand up to Athalia in defence of Joas, but little of this came across in Allan’s performance. Vocally she sounded fine in her lower registers, but her top became shrill under pressure. She was at her best in the duet with Joad, 'Cease thy anguish. Smile once more'.
Joad is barely developed as a character at all. Countertenor Clint van der Linde relied on his natural presence and fine voice to make an impression. He conveyed the anguish of the defeated Christian leader in two beautiful arias 'Oh Lord Whom We Adore' and 'Jerusalem Thou Shalt No More'.
David Greco’s Abner was much stronger dramatically. Although he is captain of Athalia’s guards, Abner is supportive of the Christians. Greco was rousing in his first aria 'When Storms the Proud to Terror Doom' and, at the conclusion, moving in his recognition of his ‘honour’d Lord’.
The treble Freddy Shaw as the young monarch handled his role with aplomb.
The orchestral playing has always been one of Pinchgut’s strongest suits, and under Erin Helyard’s alert responsive leadership this proved once more to be the case.
One of the strengths of Athalia are Handel’s superb choruses, and they were in the hands of the undoubted stars of the evening, that magnificent collection of singers, Cantillation. Hume had them whirling around the stage, at one moment clustered together in fear, at another arms raised in Peter Sellars-like semaphore. Whatever they were doing, nothing affected their sound. Their Hallelujahs which ended the first act, and their triumphant final chorus, 'Give Glory to His Awful Name', were simply overwhelming.
Athalia (Pinchgut Opera) continues at the City Recital Hall, Sydney, until 26 June 2018. Performance attended: 21 June.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.