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!