Tuesday 30 April 2019

Rare delights: Handel's third English oratorio Athalia revealed at the London Handel Festival

The Death of Athaliah by Gustave Doré
The Death of Athaliah by Gustave Doré
Handel Athalia; Grace Davidson, Anna Devin, Rupert Enticknap, London Handel Singers & Orchestra, Laurence Cummings; 
London Handel Festival at St John's Smith Square  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 April 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Handel's third oratorio proves to be full of delights in a stylish performance from the London Handel Festival

It was with Athalia, his third English-language oratorio, that Handel really seems to have hit his stride and created the outlines of the oratorio-form which have become so familiar. Yet the work itself is relatively unknown, despite a notable recording from Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music with the soloists including the remarkable combination of Joan Sutherland, Emma Kirkby and Aled Jones.

So the London Handel Festival's performance of Handel's Athalia at St John's Smith Square on Monday 29 April 2019, was a welcome chance to re-explore the work. Laurence Cummings directed the London Handel Orchestra and London Handel Singers from the harpsichord with Anna Devin as Athalia, Grace Davidson as Josabeth, Rupert Enticknap as Joad, Anthony Gregory as Mathan, Christian Immler as Abner and James Thomson as Joas.

Athalia is unusual in that it is the only one of Handel's mature operas and oratorios where the venue for the work's premiere still survives. Athalia was premiered in 1733 at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, as part of a series of performances that Handel gave at the University. Written at a time of great stress in Handel's working life, the work was designed to cope with the fact that Handel's company was much depleted thanks to the founding of the rival Opera of the Nobility.

Yet in the work Handel, and his librettist Samuel Humphreys, displayed a remarkably confidence in creating a new form. Throughout the piece Handel fluidly combines solo and chorus, rather than keeping the two groups separate, clearly enjoying the flexibility that the lack of staging gave him. And in his characterisation of the two different choral groups, the Jews and the Baal-worshipping courtiers, Handel gives us the first example of his skill at using the chorus to depict contrasting groups of people.

The story is, admittedly, a bit limp. Queen Athalia, the daughter of Queen Jezebel and King Ahab (familiar from Mendelssohn's oratorio), has reached the throne by killing the rest of her family. A sole heir survives, Joas (James Thomson, treble), hidden at the Jewish temple by Josabeth (Grace Davidson) and Joad (Rupert Enticknap). Against the backdrop of the Jewish feast of Shavuot (celebrating both the harvest and the giving of the law), the oratorio depicts Josabeth and Joad's anxieties and their eventual decision to reveal Joas as King.

Handel and Humphreys santised the story somewhat. It is based on a play by Racine (as was Handel's first oratorio Esther), but with all the gruesome bits removed. What gives the piece impetus is the role of Athalia (Anna Devin), we first see her troubled by a dream of her mother Jezebel, and then she goes off to the temple seeking the boy she saw in the dream and has a remarkable encounter with Joas. This leads to the ultimate revelation.

Surprisingly, Handel's leading soprano Anna Strada del Po (for whom Handel wrote the title role in Alcina two years later) sang Josabeth with Athalia being taken by a lesser known singer. Josabeth is by far the bigger of the two roles, and you wonder what Strada would have done with it (she created not only Alcina but Ginevra in Ariodante). Josabeth alternates between lyrical expressions of God's goodness, and profound anxieties at her position defying Athalia. By contrast the role of Athalia is relatively compact, yet Handel brings to it a great sense of drama with some striking accompanied recitatives as well as the arias.

As Josabeth, Grave Davidson sang with great beauty of tone and a lovely technical security, combining a fine evenness in the passage-work with a lovely even timbre from top to bottom of her voice. Numbers like her opening one 'Blooming Virgins' or 'Through the land so lovely blooming' were delightfully done with a great sense of clarity. But she brought little feeling of character to the role, and in the more complex numbers failed to project Josabeth's sense of anxiety and grief adequately. One of the highlights was her Act Two duet with Joas (James Thomson), where the young boy seeks to sooth Josabeth's anxieties and Handel writes for the treble in a way which was not uncomplex. Davidson kept her voice slightly reined in and blended beautifully with Thomson's treble to make a very moving moment as the two voices intertwined.

The role of Joas is not a huge one, but it is important. James Thomson, a treble at Westminster Abbey, took a little time to hit his stride. But his dialogue with Anna Devin's Athalia, in which the young Joas stands up to the Queen, had a nice dramatic spark to it, as did his Act Three dialogue with Joad.

In the title role Anna Devin was clearly relishing playing the nasty, Handel introduces Athalia via a terrific accompagnato and it is much through her recitatives (accompanied or no) rather than the arias that the character really develops. Devin allowed her first entry to develop gradually, only tearing the scenery at the end, and throughout hers was a very musical performance, giving us drama but not breaking Handel's line. Her dialogue with Joas was nicely pointed, and ended with a vivid account of 'My vengeance awakes me' in which Devin really brought out the way the character was struggling to master herself. At the end, the character somewhat evaporates but not before Devin gave us some final fireworks with 'To darkness eternal', taken at quite a lick.

With his mellow timbre and quite direct delivery Rupert Enticknap made Joad quite a strong presence. His expressive opening aria was notable for the way Handel confounded expectations and replaced the expected Da Capo repeat with the entry of the chorus, just one of the delights in the fluidity of construction in the work. Joad's 'Gloomy tyrants' was really vivid, with the words spat out and Enticknap made the most of his opportunities in the striking scene in which Joad is inspired to prophesy.

As Mahan, the priest of Baal, Anthony Gregory was suitably oily and gave a stylish account of his aria where the declamatory vocal part was combined with striking accompaniment. The other supporting role was Abner, the Captain of the Jewish forces, played by Christian Immler. Immler gave good account of Abner's vigorous arias, very much compensating for the slightly one-dimensional nature of the character.

The 18 strong London Handel Chorus was in great voice, relishing all the choral opportunities that Handel gave them ranging from the lilting intimacy of the opening chorus of virgins to the grand celebratory numbers with trumpets and horns. The work is very much a choral celebration, and the London Handel Festival certainly filled the hall with a glorious noise.

Handel's orchestration is relatively expansive, with oboes, recorders, bassoon, horns, trumpets and timpani and there were plenty of moments when he gave individual instruments their moment of glory from the recorders accompanying Josabeth, to a striking cello obbligato and moments when the bassoon was let off the leash. In the ceremonial moments, the organ even got its moment in the spotlight.

Athalia isn't perfect, but there is so much to enjoy in the piece especially the way Handel developed the interaction between soloists, chorus and orchestra. Whilst the essential plot may lack some dramatic impetus the incidental details were full of delights, especially in a performance as confident and stylish as this one.

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