musica Dei donum
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
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)
Académie Baroque Européenne d'Ambronay