Handel’s magnificent Athalia was composed in 1733, an early entry in his English oratorio career. Pinchgut Opera’s latest production does it full justice musically, but those values had to compete with directorial problems. It certainly doesn't help in the ongoing debate amongst Handel aficionados as to whether oratorios should be staged at all.

Emma Pearson (Athalia) and Freddie Shaw (Joas) © Robert Catto
Emma Pearson (Athalia) and Freddie Shaw (Joas)
© Robert Catto

While the Orchestra of the Antipodes is not a regularly performing outfit, in that it mostly only comes together for two yearly offerings at Pinchgut and other special events, it can be considered the best of Australian Baroque Orchestras, under its gifted director/conductor harpsichordist Erin Helyard. On this occasion they were at the top of their game, paying close attention to Handel’s innovative score with its varied moods and textures. The ritornello of “Faithful cares”, for instance, was wonderfully rich and sonorous. While the orchestra is beyond praise as an ensemble, one can also single out individual highlights, such as Melissa Farrow’s sensitive flute, and the delicate recorder playing of her and Emma Black. And, also as usual, the singing of the choir Cantillation was exemplary. The powerful choruses “Around let acclamations ring” and the final “Give glory to His awful name” with horns, trumpets and timpani were rendered with appropriate gravity and excitement.

Clint van der Linde (Joad) © Alex Smiles
Clint van der Linde (Joad)
© Alex Smiles

Australian soprano Emma Pearson has clearly benefited from her decade or so in Wiesbaden, and was a compelling Athalia, both vocally and dramatically. Her rendition of “My vengeance awakes me” was riveting, with brilliant embellishments à la Sutherland; well might the chorus cower away from her. Miriam Allan, another local product, has a generally endearing clear soprano with excellent production, but does occasionally go awry at the top of the range, emitting some startlingly shrill notes. Notwithstanding, she captured the part of the loyal Josabeth well. Making his Pinchgut debut, South African Clint van der Linde has a good uncovered countertenor and sang well as Joad, although his coloratura sounded occasionally effortful. His duet with Josabeth (“Cease thy anguish”) provided a nice gentle moment. Mathan, saddled with a rather unfortunate interpretation of his role, was well sung by young tenor Brenton Spiteri from Melbourne, and Australian baritone David Greco (brother to concertmaster Matthew Greco) provided excellent resonant baritonal singing as Abner. Treble Freddy Shaw is also to be commended for his confident and charming performance as Joas, the boy king.

The production has many of the usual hallmarks of Lindy Hume: drab costuming, lights raking the audience to emphasise points amply emphasised by the music, skilful movement of bodies around the stage, and gratuitous content. Athalia, as her music tells us, is a powerful arrogant woman who gets her comeuppance at the end, and there is no need to demean her by suggesting she can only be consoled by sex with the help. At least her public attire, a black dress with a gold cape, escaped the general dreariness and looked reasonably queenly. There were some better moments, such as Joas appearing in a sparkling silver tunic when in boy king mode, and in a white T-shirt and jeans when just being a boy. Josabeth leading the children onto the stage was also a pleasant scene.

Freddie Shaw (Joas) © Robert Catto
Freddie Shaw (Joas)
© Robert Catto

The biggest problem however was the surtitles. For Handel devotees, it is a moot question as to whether his English oratorios should need them at all; singers with good diction combined with an ear for what the music is telling us should enable easy understanding. Surtitles are controversial in all areas of musical theatre, but there are arguments for English surtitles for English works, such as singers not being able to be understood because singing distorts the vowels and so on. What seems not only unnecessary, but distracting in the extreme, is the translation of English into English. 18th-century English is not some weird dialect, like, say, Chaucer now appears to be;  it is early modern English which was standardised in Handel’s time, as symbolised by Johnson’s dictionary in 1755, yet here we are, 18th-century English translated into what is supposed to be modern English, so words appear at odds with what is being heard, destroying the enjoyment some people get from poetic English, translating for instance “O God I place my trust in thee” into “I place my trust in thee, O God” which serves only to destroy the rhyme with “Whate’er this tyrant may decree”. This was maddeningly distracting, which was a great pity.