For several weeks this summer, the wonderful Prestonpans Tapestry has been displayed in St John’s Kirk, its colourful panels illustrating the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s voyage from France, landing in the west of Scotland and the gathering of his men as he headed south, culminating in the Jacobite victory at the Battle of Prestonpans near Edinburgh. Prince Charlie stayed in Perth on his way, and attended a service in this lovely ancient building. How apt then that Ludus Baroque has chosen this venue to stage Handel’s seldom performed oratorio Athelia, as the biblical story of a tyrannical monarch being overthrown was championed by the Jacobites to spur on their aim of restoring the Stuart monarchy.

Anna Dennis © Edition Peters
Anna Dennis
© Edition Peters

In the story so far, Queen Athalia of Judah has been brutally ensuring that there are no contenders for the throne from King David’s line, and has turned her kingdom away from the God of Israel to worship Baal instead. Handel’s oratorio takes up the story when Athalia has a dream in which she sees herself being stabbed by a boy. Indeed, a boy Joas, the rightful heir to the throne has been brought up in secret by the high priest Joas and his wife Josabeth. Although Maltham, the high priest of Baal calms Altalia, events take their course and the Queen is overthrown and Israel is restored.  

Over the three Acts, choruses of young virgins, Israelites, Levites, priests and attendants add to the drama. The Ludus Baroque Chorus, like the orchestra, is made up of handpicked specialists from all over the UK, but to boost numbers in the big moments, singers from Perth choirs Chansons and Horsecross Voices have been attending workshops run by Ludus’ Chorus Master Will Dawes and Horsecross’ James Waters. Here, in this ‘Sing Handel’ project they have been learning how to sing and phrase in a proper Baroque style, a useful legacy to take back to their choirs.  

While the chorus dressed in black lined up, the orchestra in their trademark single coloured shirts and tops with their lovely old instruments adjusted their final tuning, and with the evening sunshine playing though the stained glass at the far end of the Kirk, we were suddenly off into a dazzling evening of Baroque excitement and wonder. The players led by Oliver Webber on violin clearly relished getting to grips with Handel’s music, at times busy with pinpoint accurate runs taken at incredible licks, at others more expressive with delightful solos from oboe and cello in particular. The continuo of Jan Waterfield on harpsichord, Christopher Suckling on cello and Tim Amherst on his five stringed fretted bass worked together particularly well. The obvious enjoyment these musicians were having was infectious, and when the long trumpets, corno da caccia and Baroque timpani joined in in Acts II and III with the brass echoing off the stone walls, the sound was spectacular.

All the soloists were on top form. Soprano Anna Dennis completely inhabited her role as the doomed queen becoming unhinged with her strong voice, wide eyed at times looking for an escape from her fate. Her aria “My vengeance awakes me” was a particular highlight. Tenor Ed Lyon was her slippery Baal High Priest Mathan, calming things down in the “Gentle airs” aria and resigned to his fate in “Hark! The thunders round me roll”Baritone William Berger as Abner, captain of the Jewish forces, and counter-tenor Andrew Radley as Joad moved the story along with lovely voices and bright clear diction. Two singers, Emma Versteeg and Nicola Corbishley, shared the role of Josabeth, walking out from the choir, both with meltingly beautiful voices. Versteeg’s duet with Joas, sung by treble Jacob Slater was very touching.

The Ludus choir took the lion’s share of choruses, and three sopranos had a brilliant moment as young virgins. This was blended singing with lots of attention to detail and exciting dynamics and diction, doubly rousing when the local singers joined the forces to include a minor key Hallelujah chorus. Conductor Richard Neville-Towle directed his forces with clarity, vision and with a wide beaming smile as performers and audience were experiencing sheer enjoyment, the wonderful acoustic of St John’s Kirk allowing voices to really soar into the heights.

Bonnie Prince Charlie would have been the same age as Joas when this was written, the King across the water. If only walls could talk.