When Pinchgut approached me about directing Athalia, I had just finished directing Theodora for them and had the most extraordinary experience. I’m a big Handel fan anyway, but I didn’t know Athalia – I just like the idea of working with choruses. They are so amazing, the Cantillation group, and I guess the reason Pinchgut chose Athalia was that it was very chorus-focused.
In preparing Athalia, I do listen to recordings but I generally start with the libretto, because the work is pretty arcane. I comb through it for how the characters reflect on themselves and talk about others, and look for clues in the da capo arias to understand what people are obsessing about. I also look for other sources of inspiration, because I’m not producing it in a vacuum, I’m producing it for a contemporary audience. The original Racine play that it’s based on, as well as Handel’s treatment of it, is quite difficult to enter into.
Director Lindy Hume. Photo © Lyndon Mechielsen
The challenge is that it’s not an opera, it’s an oratorio, so it’s about making the drama three-dimensional. I feel the piece is designed for a certain simplicity so that the complexity of the chorus and the choral writing can be front and centre, and that people can experience it in a much more aural way. It is a drama, but it still has to be about music making first.
The piece is about good versus evil, and goodness triumphant – that’s a fairly classic Baroque narrative, but it draws from the Biblical story of Athalia, Queen of Judah, who has killed to ensure that there aren’t contenders from King David’s line for the throne. She’s also turned away from God and made the Israelites worship Baal instead, so it is about religious oppression as well.
But what I think is most interesting is that it’s about parents and children. There’s a very strong presence of Athalia’s mother, Jezebel, and I think Athalia’s nightmare tells you everything you need to know about her. In her dream, Jezebel warns Athalia of her impending death and the nightmare ends only when this mysterious child stabs her, who turns out to a descendent of King David and a rival for her throne. Athalia obsesses about this child, and what’s fascinating is that he’s at the centre of this very corrupt, dystopian society but remains pure and innocent – I think that’s quite beautiful.
One of the things that’s so interesting about Athalia is that everyone is obsessed about her and her moods and whims. She’s obviously a hugely powerful person, and we learn about her through description before we meet her. She’s painted as this oppressive monster, this all-powerful, vengeful, violent woman. And then you meet her and she’s actually this sleep-deprived, messed-up daughter of a woman who’s obviously bonkers. I think that’s the great thing about Handel – whether it’s a shepherdess or a king, he does imbue his characters with a soul and heart, or light and shade.
Rehearsals for Pinchgut Opera’s Athalia. Photos © Robert Catto
In terms of what I envision for the rehearsal process, and something we did for Theodora, we’ll sit around and read the whole thing as a play and stop and start as we go to discuss what characters have just said. We’ll know pretty clearly if there are any huge differences of opinion. Each of the singers will have done their own homework because they have to sing the thing in before they start rehearsals, so they know their own characters very well.
There’s only one scene not set in a temple in Athalia, so I’ve worked with designer Melanie Liertz to try and create a single set that encompasses some of the ideas of the piece. We didn’t want a literal temple. The interesting thing about Handel’s work is that you’ll always find a lot of natural imagery, in this case about the harvest and the springtime and the verdant fields. There’s a lot of that in the Israelites’ prayers, so it’s interesting to create the exact opposite of that. It’s something that’s really quite hard and sterile, so we are looking at an environment that is almost underground. There’s a sense that the Israelites are hidden in the depths of somewhere, or are the last remnant of an oppressed society.
I want those going to see Athalia to look for what it has to offer a contemporary audience. I really think there’s something truly transcendent about this particular piece, and I think something approaching the sublime is what we’re reaching for, and I certainly think we got there with Theodora. So something in the same space is what I’m hoping to achieve.
Pinchgut Opera’s Athalia is on at City Recital Hall, Sydney from June 21 – June 26