Arts & Events

Philharmonia Baroque Presents Handel’s ‘Athalia’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 06:46:00 PM

Philharmonia Baroque will close its season with Georg Frideric Handel’s third English oratorio, Athalia, at First Congregational Church this weekend.  

The performance will be conducted by musical director Nicholas McGegan and will feature soprano Dominique Labelle as Athalia; soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Josabeth; soprano Celine Ricci as Joas; countertenor Robin Blaze as Joad; tenor Thomas Cooley as Mathan; bass-baritone Roderick Williams as Abner; and the Philharmonia Chorale, directed by Bruce Lamott. 

Handel composed and premiered his first two oratorios in Italy (1707-08), with Italian texts and no action onstage. When he arrived in England in 1710, there was no oratorio tradition; the composer wrote Italian operas (of recent popularity in London) and church music. In 1718, after writing anthems and other choral music, Handel composed a pastoral dramatic piece, Acis and Galatea, and the first English oratorio, Esther, based on Racine’s Biblical play of 1689 for the girls of St. Cyr school. It was performed privately until 1732, when it was introduced at court, paradoxically a dramatic form without acting, due to a longstanding ban on staging sacred stories. Oscar Wilde’s Salome, used by Richard Strauss as libretto for his opera, was banned in London 150 years later for the same reason.  

Athalia, Handel’s third English oratorio, was based on Racine’s last play (and on the story of the Biblical queen of Judah, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel), one of his greatest, in 1691, also written for the girls of St. Cyr, which utilized a chorus, modeled on Greek tragedy, that both commented on and participated in the action of the story. Handel’s librettist, Samuel Humphreys, adapted Racine’s story by cutting much exposition, keeping mostly key moments, including Racine’s addition to the Biblical story, the Israelite festival celebrating the harvest. 

The story of Athalia comes from 2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 23. Athaliah, a worshipper of Baal, has taken over the throne, ordering the male children of the Jewish royal house to be killed. One royal child, Joas, is kept in secret by his aunt Josebeth, and brought up in the temple of Jerusalem as ward of the High Priest, Joad (Jehoida)—one of the few countertenor roles written by Handel.  

The action takes place in the temple, with Athalia and her entourage entering at one point, the queen recounting her bad dreams, and seeking the boy she saw in in them, wearing shining priestly robes, who wins her over, only to kill her. The story ends in a revolt that overthrows Athalia, bringing Joas to the throne—an ancestor of David, so of Jesus, which accounts for the great dramatic tension concerning the boy’s safety, Racine and Handel’s audiences knowing the future ramifications of his survival. There has been speculation that the story of a hidden prince regaining his rightful throne from a usurper would have appealed to nationalistic and Jacobite sentiments prevalent in Oxford. 

“This work brings together the best of what Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra offers,” says Nicholas McGegan. “A dramatic story, in a musical style the musicians play with virtuosity and verve, an international cast of the best vocal soloists from around the world, and the fabulous Philharmonia Chorale—a chorus unmatched in singing the music of Handel. For me, conducting Handel with PBO is like driving a Rolls Royce!” 



Performed by Philharmonia Baroque  

Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday at First Congregational Church,  

2345 Channing Way. Additional performances will take place the April 25 adn 26 in  

San Francisco and Palo Alto. $30-72.  

(415) 392-4400.