London Handel Festival
Handel: Athalia (HWV52)
London Handel Orchestra & Singers, Laurence Cummings.
St John’s, Smith Square, 29 April 2019
In what must have been an extraordinary week of music in Oxford, in July 1733 Handel was invited by Oxford University to provide musical entertainment (for his own profit) during the so-called, and rarely enacted, ‘Publick Act’, a higher degree ceremony and general benefactor’s shindig. Over an eight-day period, Handel presented Esther, the Utrecht Te Deum, and Deborah in the Sheldonian Theatre, and Acis and Galatea in Christ Church College. Alongside those performances was the premiere of the oratorio Athalia, given in the late afternoon of 10 July after the Vice-Chancellor’s speech, and repeated the following morning at 9.30 before the presentation of honorary degrees. This performance was the closing event of the 2019 London Handel Festival, and was conducted by their Artistic Director, Laurence Cummings with their house band and choir, the London Handel Orchestra & Singers.
After a jovial Overture (with some clever interplay between instruments), the opening words are ‘Blooming virgins, spotless train’, which would make a good follow-that creative-writing student exercise. It is sung by Josabeth, the Old Testament good-girl of the evening. She and her husband, the Israelite High Priest Joad, have adopted the boy Joas who, unknown to them, is the legitimate King of Judah and the sole surviving grandchild of the bad-girl Athalia, daughter of Queen Jezebel and illegitimate Queen of Judah. The reason Joas is the only surviving grandchild is that his grandmother, Athalia murdered all the rest on her way to usurping the throne. Athalia is forcing the Jewish people to worship Baal, aided by the priest Mathan. The oratorio opens with the festivities of Shavuot, celebrating the harvest and the giving of the law. It is (what would become) a typical bit of Handelian Old Testament uplifting, with choruses from Young Virgins and The Israelites before the threat of Athalia is mentioned as her ‘impious band / sheds desolation through the land’.
Athailia awakes from a nightmare featuring the mangled corpse of her mother Jezebel and an enchanting boy who plunges a dagger into her breast. And so it goes on, the conflict between the goodies and the baddies played out to some wonderful choruses and a variety of Airs. Although one of his early oratorios and yet a fully-formed Handel creates a well-structured sequence of music, with the chorus playing a key role as Young Virgins, Israelites, Priests & Levites, and Attendants & Sidonian Priests. London Handel Singers coped well with their varying roles, although on occasions they sounded a little harsh.
Although clearly not an opera, it is an oratorio that could well be staged, The music flows in a way than many Handel opera do not, with their extended da capo arias and rapid-fire recitatives. But Handel manages to create real characters and raw emotions out of his cast that, even in this concert performance, were projected well by the soloists. Anna Devin seemed to relish the unpleasantness of the title role – in an opera, she would have been good-naturally booed at the curtain call. Her concluding Air To darkness eternal / and horrors infernal was an almost literal virtuoso showstopper. Grace Davidson had the more attractive role of Josabeth, she of the Blooming virgins, her innocently eloquent and graceful voice being perfect for the role, despite a bit of understandable strain on the highest notes. To make up for that, she demonstrated the rare ability to sing a proper trill, without resorting to vibrato.
The boy Joas was sung by James Thomson, an impressive boy treble from the Westminster Abbey choir, with Handel’s sensitively reduced accompaniments ideally tuned to the fledgeling soloist. His duet with the sympathetic Grave Davidson was a delight. The priestly supporters of the two female protagonists were sung by Rupert Enticknap as the Jewish High Priest, Joad (with rather too much vibrato for my tastes), with Anthony Gregory taking the role of Mathan, Priest of Baal, his Gentle airs, melodious strains being particularly attractive. Christian Immler was Abner, Captain of the Jewish Forces.
The London Handel Players were on the expected good form. There were notable contributions from cellist Katherine Sharman, and it was good that Alistair Ross made sure that his organ continuo was audible – something of a rarity with little box organs. Laurence Cummings’ interpretation and conducting was, as ever, exemplary.