in: Reviews

May 3, 2015

Great English Opera Heard at Harvard


Edward Elwyn Jones (file photo)

Edward Elwyn Jones (file photo)

The early 1730s were exceptionally fertile for George Frideric Handel. Though he had not entirely given up on opera composition (the great “magic” operas, Alcina and Ariodante were still to come), it was his preoccupation with the creation of a new genre, English Oratorio, that most consumed him during this period. It didn’t happen overnight. First came a revision of the one-act masque Esther into a full length evening in 1732, followed by Deborah (1733). Both are full of worthy music and show Handel flexing new creative muscles. But it is Athalia (1733) that is generally considered to be the first great English Oratorio. The work played at Harvard’s Memorial Church under the vivid direction of Edward Elwyn Jones on Friday evening. 

The score is strewn with splendid choruses, some of them quite short and gratifyingly integrated into the action. Often the chorus takes over in the middle of an aria where a B section might otherwise have been expected.

The plot background is nicely summarized in a BMInt companion article [here]: The story of Athalia is told in the Bible and the writings of Josephus. Athalia, daughter of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel, was married to Jehoram, King of Judah. Following her husband’s death, she resolves to have the entire line of King David murdered so as to eliminate all possible heirs to the throne. She places herself on the throne to devote the country to the worship of the pagan god Baal. The rightful heir (saved as an infant by the high priest Joad) has been raised in secret. Over the course of the oratorio, Athalia’s downfall becomes manifest, the rightful king is installed, and the country returns to the worship of the “rightful King and true God.”

Samuel Humphreys’ libretto is adapted from Jean Racine’s five-act tragedy Athalie (1691). Humphreys compresses the action into three acts with relative skill, though some important elements are omitted, notably Athalia’s murder of all the royal princes (save Joas) and the grisly specifics of Athalia’s ultimate demise. The libretto has been criticized for its lack of cohesive dramatic thrust, but, as is so often the case with Handel, the music transcends its source and we are left with a splendid and, at times, very moving evening of theatrical music. 

It is hard to imagine better advocates for the piece than Jones and his assembled forces. The soloists (including many colleagues and friends, old and new) were all remarkable. In a vividly characterized interpretation, Dominique Labelle (as the crazed Athalia) excelled in spitfire passagework, soulful arioso and fiercely pointed recitative. As Josebeth, Amanda Forsythe, also a superb Handelian, sang with clarity, nuance and flexibility. The accusatory aria “Soothing tyrant, falsely smiling” was dispatched with particular relish. Mathan, the focus of her wrath, was sung by William Hite. The pastoral quality of his first aria “Gentle airs, melodious strains!” belies the sleaze and ferocity later revealed in his character. Hite and cellist, Phoebe Carrai were equal partners, duetting with supple phrasing and gorgeous tone. Countertenor, Eric Jurenas has a powerful and pleasing sound. He sang with superb diction, real variety of tone color, and fully realized characterization. This is a young artist to watch. Bass, Mark Rissinger (who also wrote the excellent program notes) sounded very fine throughout the wide range of his role (Abner). If balances were skewed slightly in favor of the orchestra in his first aria (which has exceptionally busy instrumental writing) this remedied itself as the evening progressed. Also very impressive, was the young boy soprano, Gabriel Haddad, as Joas, the rightful king. Haddad was poised, confident and musically assured beyond his years. 

The Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra (HBCO) draws its membership from the University community and many of the area’s other finest colleges and universities. The weekly rehearsals with Carrai and concertmaster Sarah Darling have helped shape this young ensemble into a crack baroque band—not without occasional technical mishaps and lapses in intonation, but more often sounding utterly professional. For this performance the group was joined by many of Boston’s finest professional wind and brass players, with notable contributions by Sarah Paysnick and Na’ama Lion, flute; Lani Spahr, oboe; and a splendid brass section. The expert continuo group was comprised of Jones (at the harpsichord), Carrai, Thomas Sheehan (organ and harpsichord), Sally Merriman (bassoon) and Benjamin Rechel, bass. Unfortunately, Douglas Freundlich on Archlute (a fine player) was difficult to hear in this acoustic. 

Throughout the evening, the Harvard University Choir was dazzling in its many roles (Young Virgins, Israelites, Priests and Levites, etc.), singing with clarion strength and the utmost tenderness, as required. The chorus “Cheer her, O Baal with a soft serene” was exquisitely sung, as were the choruses that concluded Act II. 

Credit goes to Jones for programing this rarity, assembling a superb cast, orchestra and chorus and presiding over marvelously detailed execution with a clear sense of architecture. The concert was well attended and free of charge. What a gift to Boston’s music-loving communities!

Boston-based conductor and keyboardist Michael Beattie holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music and Boston University where he is currently a Teaching Associate in Vocal Literature. He has recorded for KOCH International and Nonesuch records. His website is here


  1. I made a bee-line to this performance..and it was richly rewarding. I second the reviewer’s points and add some comments…
    Back in 1975 I attended H&H’s performance of Haydn’s Il Ritorno di Tobia (1775/revised1784) and the program notes then observed that Il Ritorno followed then Continental practice in oratorio of strictly observing the dramatic unities of Time, Place, and Action. Athalia was therefor unusual seeming for me–used to Messiah, Judas Maccabeus, etc. wherein the Dramatic Unities are pushed aside and the story(ies) unfold over months or years. I suspect Handel was in Athalia still following that continental dramatic unities tradition. Thus known bits in the Athalia story were left out as they happen after the oratorio’s own action which conceivably could have happened within the actual performing timeframe; while other [previous incidents could be talked about, as in classical Greek tragedies. (While the dramatic unities may sound antique they’re still around: think of the movie “High Noon” which has them dripping over. I wonder too what Racine’s play “Athalia” is like.)
    The program notes and discussion were unusually pertinent and useful, and ought to be seen as a model of what such should be like. (Some other local groups are infamous for poor to non-existent background info which at least is better than outright misinformation.) The notes tried to place the oratorio in historical context; Handel’s career crisis which was solved by Athaliah’s becoming a hit. About the only jarringly wrong bit in the notes was a muddling up the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and Stuart/Hanoverian “regime change” [my term]; fortunately this didn’t detract from the main point that the Athalia story was a daring subject matter regarding usurpation/restoration for an oratorio to be performed in the “heart of enemy territory”: Oxford University, known for being “lukewarm” to the Hanoverian Succession and harboring Stuart soon to be Jacobite sympathies. Handel’s librettist was strongly Hanoverian and yet in Athalia’s final aria her last line “O tyrants, your treason Shall in the due season weep blood for this barbarous day.” is indeed eerily prophetic: twelve years after its premiere came the events of The Forty Five and the big Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s getting withing 125 miles of London and overthrowing the Hanoverians. And thirty years after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 destroyed any further threat to the Glorious Revolution–the thirteen American colonies declared their independence in yet another but this time successful revolt.
    Food for thought, created by this delicious music; those of you who weren’t there missed a treat and a broadening of your musical experience/education.
    Minor historical notes. I remember a course of the Bible in college (BU, 1972) where the professor discussed that the real problem with Queen Athaliah may have been that she was a woman and there were those in Israel/Judah who could not accept a queen regnant, akin to John Knox’s “Monstrous Regiment [meaning government] of Women” against the Three Marys (the Queen Regent of Scotland, her underage daughter Mary Queen of Scots, and Bloody Mary of England). Knox eventually had to do some quick explaining to Queen Elizabeth I that he had no objection to her ruling; fortunately for him she accepted.
    It would help if cultural historians and historians in other disciplines would talk to each other more often; many mistakes would be avoided. An interesting aspect of the Met Opera radio broadcasts is their regular feature about what else was going on in the world when the day’s opera premiered

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 3, 2015 at 11:33 pm

  2. I heartily agree with the reviewer.

    One note of caution for the youngster who sang the boy king. His self-confidence and performance were admirably displayed; that said, I worry about the slight wobble I detected in his young voice. (I trained in opera at Eastman & Manhattan Schools of Music). I’m hoping it will be watched and corrected as he grows up. Blessings.

    Comment by Elisabeth W. Taylor — May 5, 2015 at 9:09 pm

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