Left – Emma Pearson. Photo – Alex Smiles. Cover – Freddie Shaw and the cast of Athalia. Photo – Robert Catto.
Some doyen of music history, I think it was Manfred Bukofzer, made the perhaps unguarded remark that Handel’s oratorios were sometimes more dramatic than his operas. The reason for this was that since there was no stage to enhance the action, that role had to be taken by the music. This pronouncement has been responsible for the large-scale importations to the stage of works designed to be listened to but not watched, which in the case of Pinchgut’s earlier production of Theordora was widely considered to be successful.
In the wake of that success Pinchgut chose another Handel oratorio, one that even fewer people had heard of than Theodora, to mount on the stage. The score of Athalia is delicious, consisting of a string of arias interspersed by brief, well-crafted choruses (and if anyone can write choruses Handel can). The main characters are, unusually, both women, one pious and God-fearing, the other baleful and Baal-worshipping. Both Miriam Allan and Emma Pearson belong to the generation of Baroque singers for whom clarity of line, purity of sound, and coloratura all seem effortless and completely natural. Emma Pearson’s Athalia at times demonstrated a steely ferocity that was never demanded from Miriam Allan’s Josabeth, the spokesperson for those among the people of Judea who had remained orthodox and had not gone over to Baal. Although by and large the action alternates between these two opposing characters, the vocal contribution of three male principals was equally excellent. Brenton Spiteri has a tenor voice to die for – pure, immediate, unforced, utterly reliable. David Greco, a veteran of many Pinchgut performances, seems to grow in stature every time I hear him. The countertenor Clint van der Linde has a glorious sound, but perhaps not quite such a stable rhythmic sense as the rest. Without exception, all of the principals ornamented the da capos of their arias with impressive agility within the bounds of good taste. And last but by no means least, the chorus, Cantillation, gave an object-lesson in ensemble, phrasing, and delicacy of expression.
The Orchestra of the Antipodes is an absolutely world-class baroque band, consisting of the best baroque musicians in the country who have been sculpted first by Antony Walker and then by the present conductor, Erin Helyard into an organism of wonderful unanimity, transparency, and warmth of sound. How gorgeous the oboes (Emma Black and Ingo Müller) sound amidst the texture of the strings. How serenely captivating is Melissa Farrow’s obligato playing on flute and recorder. And how gently disciplined Helyard’s conducting has become, of scores which he penetrates to the very depths.
Musically this performance was an unmitigated delight. But in my opinion (an opinion shared by some but not all of the people I spoke to during and after the performance) the same could not be said of the staging. Lindy Hume is one of Australia’s most well-known, versatile, and lively directors, but even she couldn’t coax drama out of this work. The orthodox Jews vary, without dramatic continuity, between dejection, sycophancy, and a weak determination to do something which never materialises. They is underscored by designer Melanie Liertz’ very tasteful, subdued colours which reminded me of some of Felicien David’s paintings. Queen Athalia, described as tyrannical, doesn’t actually do anything either. Her menacing general, Abner (David Greco) turns out to be a wet.
In an effort to inject something dramatically interesting into this beautiful but unstageable work, Lindy Hume fell into that most unforgiving of traps, bathos. Early in the opera, (sorry, oratorio) Athalia has a dream in which she is killed by being stabbed by the boy who is the rightful king, and who indeed succeeds Athalia at the end of the opera. This sets up a dramatic expectation that the plot will make something of this – either fulfil it or frustrate it. So this, Athalia’s death, becomes a viable dramatic subject. What happens in this production? As the prophet Joas predicts her death, she comes on stage and dies. A few minutes later there she is, alive and well, and vowing to teach the adherents of Jehovah a lesson. Not only does this lesson not materialise, but the young boy doesn’t kill her either – she just dies in a heap.
Natalie Shea, the arbiter of text for many Pinchgut productions, made the interesting decision to translate the badly constructed 18th century libretto into modern English for the surtitles. This was partly, she told me, to make it more intelligible, and partly to avoid infelicities of text such as the opening line of the opera, “Blooming Virgins”, which of course has nothing to do either with bloomers or with failed phone companies, and indeed doesn’t qualify as one of the more arresting starts to an opera. But one result of this was for me that, because the English of the singing didn’t match that of the surtitles, I thought they were singing in a different language. This gave me that strange, dreamlike sense, disquieting but not unpleasant, of being lost in entirely familiar territory.
This performance, with its beautiful and deeply sophisticated musical interpretation and a production that defeated even the great skills of its director, was a clear illustration that, while there may well be some truth in Bukovzer’s remark about the dramatic content of Handel’s oratorios, one should beware of taking the hint literally and lifting them onto the stage. Some may survive, even be enhanced, by this, but others just don’t work. Pinchgut Opera has pioneered the production of many 17th and 18th century operas rarely if ever performed in Australia. Until they produce, for example, Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, more of Rameau’s fabulous operas, and some of Gluck’s later works, and even Handel’s own operas, I hope they are not tempted to stage another oratorio. I am looking forward very much their next production, an opera by Hasse.
Pinchgut Opera presents
Director Lindy Hume
Venue: City Recital Hall Sydney NSW
Dates: 21 – 26 June 2018