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Concert reviews

GF Händel: Athalia, oratorio in 3 acts (HWV 52)

Diana Higbee (Josabeth), Blandine Staskiewicz (Athalia), soprano; Nicolas Champart (Joas), treble; David Clegg (Joad), alto; Sébastien Obrecht (Mathan), tenor; Krzysztof Szumanski (Abner), bass
Choir and Orchestra of the Académie Baroque Europénne d'Ambronay
Dir: Paul McCreesh

concert: Utrecht, Oct 8, 2003

The Académie Baroque Européenne d'Ambronay was founded in 1993 and aims to contribute to the development, improvement and professionalisation of young musicians from all over Europe. Every year students from conservatories in Europe come together to rehearse and perform a composition under the direction of experts in the field of early music. In the past Jordi Savall, William Christie, Christophe Rousset and Ton Koopman, among others, have been in charge. This year it was Paul McCreesh who directed a semi-staged performance of Handel's oratorio Athalia, which I heard in Utrecht on October 8.

Athalia is Handel's third English oratorio - after Esther and Deborah -, composed in 1733, probably as an expression of gratitude to the University of Oxford which had given Handel an honorary degree. The first performance took place in the Sheldonian Theatre in July. Two performances were given, and the oratorio was a great success. Only two years later Athalia was repeated in Covent Garden in London.
The libretto was written by Samuel Humphreys, who based it on Jean Racine's play Athalie from 1691. Racine had taken the subject from the Bible, from the books 2 Kings (Ch 11) and 2 Chronicles (Ch 22 and 23). It is about one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the Kingdom of Judah. In the Kingdom of Israel, general Jehu has been ordered by God to extirpate the house of King Ahab because of its idolatry. When he kills King Joram the Judaean King Ahazia, who is visiting the Israelian king at his sickbed, is also killed, since he is married to Ahab's daughter Athalia.
When Athalia learns her son is dead she kills all male members of the royal family in order to ensure her power and the dominance of the worship of Baal. But her daughter Josabeth, who is married to Joad, priest of God, hides one of Ahazia's sons, Joas, from Athalia for six years.

In the first act Josabeth and Joad both wonder whether the dreadful situation will ever improve and the worship of God will ever be restored. We also learn that Athalia has had nightmares which seem to announce the revolt which takes place in Act 2, when the existence of Joas as the rightful heir to the throne is revealed and the prince is crowned as King. A direct confrontation between Athalia and her daughter and Joas takes place, which is the dramatic climax in the oratorio. In Act 3 Athalia realises that her reign has come to an end and her attendants are leaving her; even Baal doesn't help. The rule of King Joas is confirmed. The oratorio ends with a chorus of Virgins, Priests, Levites and Israelites in praise of God: "Give glory to his awful name, let ev'ry voice his praise proclaim!"

There is relatively little action in this oratorio. Most of it takes place in Act 2, when the tide turns to Athalia's disadvantage. Therefore one wonders why this oratorio was chosen to be performed in semi-staged form. 'Semi-staged' wasn't a lot more than just some movements of the protagonists on the stage, showing the interaction between them. There were no costumes or light effects. In the end it was little more than a 'concerted' performance. From the website of the Académie one gets the impression that the original concept contains more staging than was showed her. Of course I can only assess the performance as it was presented in Utrecht.

More important than the action is the characterisation of the protagonists, which requires careful casting. On the whole it was quite convincing. The wicked Queen Athalia was perfectly interpreted by Blandine Staskiewicz, who has a quite dramatic, strong voice, which she used to great effect, although a little less vibrato would have been nice. Particularly impressive was the aria 'My vengeance awakes me' in Act 2 where - after little Joas rejects her offer to rule under her guidance - she spits fire.
A more interesting character is Josabeth: in the beginning she courageously sticks to the God she worships, but gets scared when Abner reports that Athalia is coming to the temple which she suspects is hiding an enemy of her reign ('Faithful cares in vain extended'). But she finds the courage to defend Joas in the direct confrontation with Athalia, then loses heart after Athalia's rage aria, only to be encouraged by Joas in the duet 'My spirits fail'. Diana Higbee was well cast in this role. She has a beautiful voice, perfectly suited to the caring and soft side of the character. But in the second act she didn't fail to show the stronger and more resolute side. At the beginning she was a little too cautious in her singing and her ornamentation was too predictable, but she took more freedom later on and during the evening she turned out to be one of the most convincing participants of this performance.
David Clegg was good as Joad, encouraging his wife during the course of the events. His aria in the first act, 'O Lord whom we adore', was particularly beautiful. But in the more dramatic aria 'Gloomy tyrants, we disdain' at the end of Act One, he was a little short on expression and since the low register of his voice is not very strong, the balance with the orchestra was less than ideal.
The role of little prince Joas was - like in the first performance under Handel's direction - sung by a treble, Nicolas Champart, pupil of the choir school of Notre Dame in Paris. He was a little hesitant in the beginning of his aria 'Will God, whose mercies ever flow' but improved quickly and was quite impressive in the duet with Josabeth, 'My spirits fail', certainly one of the highlights of the performance.
Krzysztof Szumanski did pretty well in the role of Abner, in particular in the aria 'Ah, canst thou but prove me', but Sébastien Obrecht couldn't make any impression as Mathan. I didn't like his voice - which is a matter of taste - but his interpretation was more pathetic than dramatic, for instance in the recitative in Act 3, 'He bears no more' and the following aria 'Hark! His thunder round me roll', which was also spoilt by his heavy vibrato.
The choir, representing both 'sides' of the conflict - Virgins, Priests, Levites and Israelites on the one hand, Attendants (of Athalia) on the other -, has an important role in the oratorio. Most of them are very dramatic, like the ones which open and conclude the second act. These were sung with a lot of aggression, helped by excellent playing from the orchestra, especially the horns and trumpets. The instrumental solo parts were also done nicely: the cello in Mathan's aria 'Gentle airs, melodious strains' and the transverse flute in Athalia's aria 'Softest sounds no more can cease me', both in Act 1.

Minor criticisms notwithstanding I was quite pleased with this performance, which showed that this is a very fine oratorio, which deserves to be more frequently performed. One wonders why this oratorio is neglected in comparison to some others. Maybe this can be explained from an unhistorical view on pieces like this, as was demonstrated by the writer of the liner notes of the Utrecht performance. "The story has a high degree of Sunday school heroism and breathes an atmosphere of propaganda music of an evangelization society". With this kind of ignorance regarding the historical context and anti-religious prejudice it is simply impossible to estimate Handel's oratorio at its true value.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:

Académie Baroque Européenne d'Ambronay

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