Handel’s third oratorio in English, Athalia, was a resounding success on its premiere in 1733, and stands today perhaps as an example of the gentler side to his ‘dramatic’ output. With Samuel Humphreys’ libretto being based on Jean Racine’s Athalie of 1691, it tells the Old Testament story of Athalia who, following the death of her husband Jehoram, King of Judah, organises the murder of all his descendants. By doing this she is able to take the crown for herself, and to devote the country to the idolatrous worship of Baal rather than the God of Israel.
Unbeknownst to her, however, the rightful heir to Jehoram’s throne, the child Joas, was saved by the High Priest Joad and his wife Josabeth, who have raised him as their own son under the name Eliakim. If all this sounds rather bloody, the story we see begins after the acts of murder have been committed, and much of the action focuses on the Jewish people offering their prayers to God. Athalia’s final downfall comes when they and her own soldiers turn on her in favour of Joas, but even as she goes to her death she declares that she will seek vengeance from beyond the grave.
This performance by the Whitehall Choir and London Baroque Sinfonia, under the baton of Paul Spicer, provided a great antidote to any suggestion that one Handel oratorio sounds very much like another. The remarkable feature of this piece is that, while there are moments of overt triumphalism, in general it feels very gentle as the tone is kept on a reasonably even keel for the majority of the evening. In Part I at least, even the ‘evil’ Athalia’s proclamations feel, for most part, quite beautiful and elegant.
The London Baroque Sinfonia’s playing was characterised by an exquisite, and perhaps unexpected, lightness, which ensured that every detail shone through. The approach to the playing may have been dictated by the score and the instruments employed, but it surely took Spicer’s understanding of how the piece was designed to sound to execute it in this way with such conviction and success. If however, the orchestra did not adopt a hyperbolic approach to the playing, it still succeeded in bringing sufficient drama and passion to the proceedings where necessary by allowing the music to speak for itself. At key moments various instrumentalists stood to play their lines, while virtually all of the repeats in the normally da capo arias were cut so that the evening went at a reasonable pace.
The Whitehall Choir played its part to the full while the soloists, all current or recent students of the Royal Academy of Music, were superb. First among equals was Eve Daniell as Athalia whose soprano was possessed of some strikingly rich and dark hues, and yet whose sound was so well shaped that it proved highly pleasing to the ear. Her Athalia came across as such a strong character that, in spite of everything she had done, it was impossible not to feel for her from the very first moment that she started to lose control, let alone at her final demise.
Tristram Cooke was excellent as Joad, with a counter-tenor voice that felt sweet and pure while also possessing a notable degree of weight. As Josabeth, Abigail Broughton displayed a beautiful soprano and there was a nice degree of resonance to her sound, while Nicholas Mogg brought a very strong and secure bass voice to the character of Abner, the Captain of the Jewish forces. Will Blake was a spirited and effective Mathan, the shape-shifting Priest of Baal, while as Joas, Emily Forrest’s sweet soprano had a wonderful lightness.