“Never has there been such applause and marks of admiration,” said the London Magazine on the occasion of Athalia’s world premiere in July of 1733. This was not always a given, considering how swift the process of composition was – Handel likely began writing it in May of that same year, completing it the following June. His third English oratorio, it’s something of a rarity, with many finding their way to it via the Christopher Hogwood recording with Dame Joan in the title role.

Emma Pearson. Photo © Robert Catto

Librettist Samuel Humphreys gleans inspiration from a Racine tragedy by the same name, which in turn fashioned a narrative from brief passages in the Old Testament. A simple enough plot to follow, it tells the story of Athalia, who has secured her reign by killing off rival claimants and introduced the worship of Baal into the kingdom of Judah. Unfortunately for her, Josabeth, wife of the Levite priest Joad, has rescued the last surviving heir to the throne, Joas (a handily alliterative trio), keeping him under wraps until he is old enough to assert his own claim to the kingdom.

In Humphreys’ treatment, Athalia is a woman more talked about than talking at times, but what there is can be a gift in the right hands. Director Lindy Hume (this is her fourth production for Pinchgut, with her most recent being 2016’s Theodora) has foregrounded Athalia’s troubled mental state, and established a romantic relationship between Athalia and her advisor Mathan. Soprano Emma Pearson more than rises to the challenge as the murderous queen, injecting the exposition-heavy drama with just the right amount of energy and venom. The role’s technical challenges pose no great difficulties for her, and although she only gets a couple of true arias, she makes them count. A soulful, increasingly desperate reading of her entrance aria, What scenes of horror round me rise, gave nuance to a role that’s often directed to be a cardboard villain – it’s wonderful that Hume has realised there’s much to be mined here. Visited by her mother Jezebel in a dream, Athalia is forced to relive the gory circumstances of her death, but not before her own doom is prophesied, leaving her distracted and unable to engage with Mathan.

Emma Pearson and Freddy Shaw. Photo © Robert Catto

Tenor Brenton Spiteri impresses vocally as Mathan, his consoling Gentle airs, melodious strains showing a keen awareness of line and tasteful phrasing. When he later realises that the game’s up and it’s over for Athalia and himself, Hark! His thunders round me roll saw him wracked with anguish but in total vocal control. Hume has expanded the character of Mathan by making him Athalia’s very public lover, and both Spiteri and Pearson are fabulously wicked as the piece’s unscrupulous power couple, bedecked in leather and sequins by designer Melanie Liertz. However, what Hume tries to say with their relationship is unclear – what’s involving about Athalia’s plight is her sense of isolation and inability to forge connections to other human beings. Having her loved up, or appearing to be loved up, undercuts some of that complexity, and is further muddled by the fact that we never truly get a satisfying idea of who Mathan is, and the reasons behind his actions.

Brenton Spiteri and Emma Pearson. Photo © Alex Smiles 

Some oratorios are easier than others to stage, and Athalia, as talky as it is, is probably one of the more difficult ones. Designed by Melanie Liertz, the action takes place on a structure made to resemble a geode, capturing both the claustrophobic, underground nature of the oppressed Judeans and their continued hope. Hume’s production has its longueurs though, particularly in her realisation of the Judeans. Cowed and fundamentally benign for three quarters of the work, the oppressed temple dwellers are shown to be gleefully violent towards Athalia when she’s overthrown, with three men roughly handling her limp body. This mob mentality struck a false note, with there having been no previous suggestion of their capacity for such cruelty.

The chorus. Photo © Alex Smiles 

Performing double duty as the worshippers of Jehovah and Baal, the Cantillation choir were as ever unimpeachable. Athalia is a particularly chorus-heavy work, but no strain was in evidence – chorus members spun magic with every phrase, achieving an unearthly blend at times. Some of their synchronised stage movement felt a bit heavy-handed, but they clearly know how to occupy the space of the City Recital Hall and conveyed oodles of personality.

Athalia’s clear counterpart in this work is Josabeth, who has her own clearly defined emotional arc, fuelled by her fear of the former’s discovery of Joas. On opening night, soprano Miriam Allan’s diction as Josabeth was sometimes wanting, not helped by the odd surtitles which often had little relation to what was actually being sung, and translated into ‘modern’ English some fairly understandable stuff. Her top was not always reliable either, tending to be hard-edged. One wishes that Hume spent more time with Allan on Josabeth, who can be as emotionally complex as Athalia – like the temple dwellers, she came across as fundamentally unthreatening until the eleventh hour, when she struck Mathan across the face, something that felt unearnt. Despite this, Allan gained greater vocal security over the course of the evening, culminating in a moving Faithful cares in vain extended.

Miriam Allan. Photo © Robert Catto

As her husband Joad, countertenor Clint van der Linde conveyed somebody of decency and steadfast character, his despairing O Lord, whom we adore, shall Judah rise no more? an object lesson in pathos with restraint. As the third member of their family, treble Freddy Shaw as Joas showed promise. Giving one of the night’s most memorable performances, baritone David Greco made much out of the slightly opaque role of Abner. Demonstrating his usual attention to text, superb vocalism and stage presence, he gave a stentorian reading of When storms the proud to terrors doom and a plangent Rejoice, O Judah, this triumphant day!

Clint van der Linde. Photo © Alex Smiles

The orchestra is on top form here, with Erin Helyard drawing forth spine tingling plangency one moment then deep agitation and foreboding the next. With crisp, stylish playing across the board, this was a fleet account that maintained elegance without losing Handel’s dramatic impetus.

Pinchgut’s Athalia is on at the City Recital Hall until June 26