Athalia — Lincoln Center Great Performers Series

Many of them can be staged, and are; I have seen
stagings of Susanna, Samson and Belshazzar, among
the “sacred” oratorios — not to mention the famous video of
Peter Sellars’ Theodora and stagings of the
“secular” oratorios, Semele and Hercules.
Several of the sacred oratorios — notably Esther and
Athalia, from Racine, and Hercules, from Sophocles — are based
to varying degrees on actual stage plays. Too, Handel had written some two
dozen operas before he turned to oratorio, propelled as much by poor
management decisions in managing his Italian singers as by the English demand
for musical entertainment in English — much as he missed the scenery
and special effects, he saw no reason not to exploit his gifts for
characterization and high drama, and much to add in the use of a chorus,
which became affordable when he gave up scenery, costumes and ballet.

Athalia, his third sacred oratorio and the one, critics agree,
where he broke stride into greatness, is the melodramatic tale of one of the
Old Testament’s most unusual figures, the queen who usurped the throne
of Judea, massacred the royal family (including her own children and
grandchildren), and restored the worship of Baal to Jerusalem. After seven
years, she was overthrown and slain by the one grandson who escaped the
massacre. Although her reputation has been obscured by that of her mother,
Jezebel, it’s a heck of a story, and Racine (modeling his tale on Greek
tragedy) summed it up in one extraordinary day, as does Handel. (Sukkoth,
apparently — the celebrations in the Temple are of a harvest

As presented at the newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall by the Concerto
Kˆln, Athalia was almost restive in its concert chains, straining to
get out and be a drama at every twist and turn. All the fine singers were
acting, and Concerto Kˆln made the most of Handel’s various
accompaniments: the slashing strings (one section after another), for
example, as the renegade priest Mathan reflected on what was in store for him
now that God had defeated Baal, or the recorders that attempted to console
the restless, guilt-ridden Athalia. Rhythms were crisp and danceable, and the
tension of the story never relaxed.

It takes some skill to chew scenery when there is no scenery, and Simone
Kermes, as Athalia, had it down — you wouldn’t want to get in her
way. She was in character the moment she walked in: hair dyed red to match
her flouncy orange and yellow gown and gold platform pumps, eyes starting
from her head, every movement expressing a woman of emotional extremes. She
underlined every extravagant syllable with voice and gesture (words like
“gore” and “horror” got special attention), and her
fruity, Germanic vibrato shook the hall. She looked and sounded not of the
same world as the other singers — unlike her, mostly British — as
was only proper for this alien, sympathetic-repulsive figure, tragic in her
resolve to face the collapse of all her schemes.

The contrast this made with Sarah Fox as the confident (but not
untroubled) Josabeth, Athalia’s daughter who has secretly preserved the
last prince of the royal house, could hardly have been greater. Fox has a
huge, bright, vibrato-free, clarion sound with perfect attention to every
little turn and grace note, the perfect instrument for Josabeth’s
passionate convictions — she could be a young Sutherland, except that
her diction is outstanding. Josabeth is Handel’s voice of the idealist
who will triumph — his librettist omitted the prophecies of
Judaea’s decadence in Racine, which didn’t suit the mood in
Oxford in 1733. Johannette Zomer was charming in the small trouser (well,
knicker) role of Prince Joas, given to a boy in Handel’s day.

The men were not quite so exciting, so involved, as the women. James
Gilchrist sang a thoughtful Mathan, humanizing the turncoat’s
obsequiousness and despair just as Handel does. Iestyn Davies sang the role
of the high priest, Joad, with confidence and lovely floating head tones,
very much in the rather undemonstrative English countertenor tradition. Neal
Davies sang Abner, one of Handel’s bass generals, such a joy, amid
trumpets and drums, in the right throat — but though he hit all the
notes, I found the notes themselves hollow, ill-supported, unresonant. His
was the only second rate performance of the occasion, and he the only
performer I would not be eager to hear again.

Two dozen is the maximum number I ever care to hear in a Handel chorus, no
matter the size of the hall. The Balthasar Neumann Choir number twenty-five,
but I forgive them, on account of the precision of their music-making and the
subtle phrasing they impart to choruses of triumph, of prayer, of seductive
luxury (when priests of Baal), of nuance to words like “groan”
and “wound” — when Handel gets a word like that, he makes
the music feel it, and the Neumann Choir made us feel it too.

John Yohalem

image_description=Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour’s Vie des femmes cÈlËbres, c. 1505; in the DobrÈe Museum, Nantes, France.
product_title=G. F. Handel: Athalia
product_by=Athalia: Simone Kermes; Josabeth: Sarah Fox; Joas: Johannette Zomer; Joad: Iestyn Davies; Mathan: James Gilchrist; Abner: Neal Davies. Balthasar Neumann Choir, Concerto Kˆln, conducted by Ivor Bolton. Lincoln Center Great Performers Series, Alice Tully Hall, May 16.