Handel’s Athalia: London Handel Festival

As Paul Henry Lang points out in his 1966 biography of Handel, both Handel
and Racine were both in their element when ‘sketching women’, both admired
matriarchs, and they excelled at depicting jealousy: ‘both of them drew an
infinite variety of female characterisations, from virginal tenderness to
murderous passion’.

Handel’s Athalia, performed at St John’s Smith Square by the
London Handel Orchestra and Singers, is a good
illustration of Lang’s observations. Similarly, of his argument that ‘what
was congenial to Handel in Racine’s work was the purely internal tragedy;
suffering, hesitation, love, jealousy, bravery, and renunciation. The
action arises from the characters in spite of external events’. And,
spicing up the Old Testament story with the dramatic intensity of Greek
tragedy, what characters Racine and Handel give us. The eponymous Queen of
Judah, daughter of Jezebel, is a ferocious tyrant: a wicked usurper who
annihilates her son’s children, save Joas, to clear her own path to the
throne and suffers a similarly violent death herself. In contrast,
Josabeth, who, with her husband the High Priest Joad, is guardian to Joas –
known as Eliakim and brought up ignorant of his origins and of his status
as the only survivor of the House of David – epitomises the tenderness and
devotion expected of a wife and mother, though she is not without
resilience and nerve. Joad himself is a man of both human passion and
divine insight. We have the Machiavellian Mathan, Athalia’s henchman and
priest of the Baalites, and Abner, the upright Captain of the Jewish
forces, who helps Joas regain his rightful throne.

That Handel’s violent monarch retains the overpowering presence of Racine’s
queen is in no way thanks to Handel’s librettist, Samuel Humphreys, who had
previously provided textual additions to Esther and the libretto
for Deborah. Humphreys appears to have found Racine’s tragedy
rather too strong: he simplified (Racine’s moral ambiguities did not
survive), excised (explanatory detail and backstory was cut, obscuring
motivations), watered down (Racine’s Joad had been a terrifying zealot),
and weakened the ending: Athalia does not die at all, but is merely
deposed, her future fate left unclear. The dramatic balance was also upset
by Humphreys’ dispersal of the arias: Josabeth gets the lion’s share,
Athalia one three (and only one of them a da capo).

But, if Humphreys’ text lacked a coherent dramatic structure, dynamic
action and evident motivation, then that was not going to stop Handel
supplying all three. Esther and Athalia, along with Deborah (1733) – another strong woman who rules in her own right,
though in that case legitimately – mark Handel’s early experiments with the
oratorio form. But, while Esther and Deborah are largely
adaptations of earlier music (the 1727 Coronation anthems, theBrockes-Passion and Il Trionfo del Tempo),Athalia (though it reuses a little material from the Brockes-Passion), is essentially a newly composed work,
commissioned by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University where it was
performed in the Sheldonian Theatre on 10th July 1733 as part of
the ceremonies surrounding the Public Act (the conferring of degrees), an
occasion on which Handel himself was probably awarded an honorary degree.

And, Athalia represents a big step forward in Handel’s handling of
the oratorio format. In particular, the Chorus are fully integrated into
the drama – representing both the Jews and the Baalites as well as priests
and young virgins – and the London Handel Singers were in terrific
voice, capturing the different tenors and sentiments, expanding ambiently
into eight-part textures. The Chorus even interpolate in the arias
themselves, and supplement the recitative exchanges, creating exciting
momentum. Typical is the moment in Act 1 when Mathan urges Athalia, who is
stricken with terror at the vision of a young slayer which has come to her
in a nightmare, “Swift to the temple let us fly, to know/What mansion hides
this youthful foe”, as Abner declares that he will “haste the pontiff to
prepare/For this black storm of wild despair”. The concluding couplet of
the Chorus of Attendants, “The traitor, if you there descry,/Oh, let him by
the altar die”, here whipped up enormous dramatic energy. The ‘Allelujah’
which closes Act 1, and the Israelites’ declaration of unanimity and faith
– “With firm united hearts, we all/Will conquer in his cause, or fall” –
had all of the majesty and muscularity of Messiah’s grand

Anna Devin’s titular tyrant was disdainful from the first, fairly spitting
the words of her initial accompanied recitative and matching the restless
agitation of the strings’ introduction to her first aria: it was evident
that this was a queen on the emotional rack. Thwarted by Joas’ innocence
and integrity, in her plan to abduct the young boy whom she fears, this
Athalia bristled with vengeful fury, as Devin raced buoyantly through the
incessant runs and riles. The Queen’s final aria, “To darkness eternal/And
horrors infernal/Undaunted I’ll hasten away”, was as fiery as the hell
Athalia imagines. This was a performance in which dramatic and musical
values convincingly cohered.

The role of Josabeth finds Handel in somewhat sentimental vein. Grace
Davidson delivered Josabeth’s many lyrical outpourings with fitting
serenity of manner and loveliness of tone – Act 2’s ‘Through the land so
lovely blooming’ was particularly fluid and smooth’ – but her soprano
sometimes lacked the colour and nuance which would infer the emotional and
dramatic engagement which is somewhat lacking in Humphreys’ text. The duet
between Josabeth and Joas which ends Act 2 was, however, one of the
highlights of the performance: here Davidson’s fragmented vocal line
captured all of Josabeth’s breathless fear, and Joas’s sympathy and
understanding were conveyed with care by treble James Thomson, who was
sensitively accompanied by the upper strings.

Rupert Enticknap was a confident and commanding Joad; the countertenor’s
recitatives at the start of Act 3 were particularly striking and textually
pointed. The ironically tender accompaniment and flowing phrasing of
Mathan’s appeal for “Gentle airs, melodious strains” to becalm the agitated
Queen’s woes were complemented by Anthony Gregory’s mellifluous delivery
and sweet tone – he was every bit the oleaginous intriguer. The small role
of Abner was well sung by baritone Christian Immler.

Laurence Cummings conducted with ceaseless energy and flexibility: tempi
were swift, orchestral rhythms punchy, timbres finely delineated. The
arrival of two baroque horns and two baroque trumpets for the closing
chorus was the icing on the instrumental cake.

The musico-dramatic persuasiveness of this LHF performance was confirmed by
the fact that, though English oratorios came about in response to the
failure of his opera company and the public’s disaffection with the opera seria genre, as the closing Chorus of the Israelites rang
out – “Give glory to His awful name,/Let ev’ry voice His praise proclaim” –
I found myself reflecting on how successful a staged presentation of Athalia would surely be.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Athalia HWV52

Athalia, Queen of Judah – Anna Devin, Josabeth, Wife of Joad – Grace
Davidson, Joad, High Priest – Rupert Enticknap, Mathan, Priest of Baal –
Anthony Gregory, Abner, Captain of the Jewish Forces – Christian Immler
Joas, King of Judah – James Thomson (Treble from Westminster Abbey),
Conductor – Laurence Cummings, London Handel Orchestra, London Handel

St John’s Smith Square, London; Monday 29th April 2019.

image_description=Anna Devin
product_title=Handel: Athalia – London Handel Festival
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Anna Devin