In spite of the fact that a Handel oratorio, however renowned, provides limited opportunities for staging, this production of Joshua, directed by Charles Edwards, is a largely successful exercise in the art of the possible. The magnificent Opera North Chorus is able to flaunt itself extensively, a stripped set with backstage views is used to good effect, a terrific orchestra is tightly conducted by Stephen Layton and there are no weak links amongst the soloists.

Henry Waddington as Caleb, Daniel Norman as Joshua and Jake Arditti as Othniel © Alastair Muir
Henry Waddington as Caleb, Daniel Norman as Joshua and Jake Arditti as Othniel
© Alastair Muir

As is usually the case with a company which survives very well in a world where bold risk-taking is normal, the updating comes with plus and minus signs: on this occasion the Ancient Israelites are firmly equated with the founders of the State of Israel in 1948. The programme contains a timeline which takes us from the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to the Lebanon conflict of 2006, and some of the historic black and white photographs of the famous Israeli photographer Rudi Weissenstein, a few of which are used as back projections. It seems at first sight to be a straightforwardly obvious thing to do, to link ancient and modern Jews, but it comes with connotations which might not all have been fully considered. In Handel’s time the Ark of the Covenant was a kind of legendary symbol for the British constitution, which was based in laws guaranteeing liberty and property rights applying to the whole nation. In Joshua, it was a political metaphor, the subject of much political discussion at a time of military uncertainty, when Catholic “tyrants” threatened British Protestantism. The example of the Israelites was supposed to have been an inspiration, but even in those days God’s directive to invade the land of Canaan and ruthlessly destroy its inhabitants was often instanced as an appalling example of the depravity of the Old Testament. So, if analogies are being drawn between then and now, and Canaanites become Palestinians (not mentioned in the programme), layers of extra meaning can be seen. Perhaps that is the intention.

Thank God for the love-interest! The sub-plot is excellently served by soprano Fflur Wyn as Achsah and countertenor Jake Arditti as Othniel. The delicious Wyn is the perfect young lover (as she proved in the recent production of La Clemenza di Tito), who has the ability to sound strong and gentle at the same time. Her warm, clear voice and the ease with which she hits the top notes, combined with a sort of folkloric quality, make her the ideal companion for Arditti, who must be rated as an exciting new force. He projects powerfully, and is likely to be in great demand in the future. The scene in which the two of them stretch out on the ground, passing a spliff to each other, just before being disturbed by her father Caleb, stands out; and Wyn’s rendition of “Hark, ’tis the linnet”, with its accompanying bird calls from flute and violin in Act I, is superb. This drew down a flurry of applause from an audience which seemed a little reluctant at times to demonstrate its appreciation.

Henry Waddington’s Caleb, with his rich and wide-ranging bass-baritone, dominates early scenes at the cost of tenor Daniel Norman’s Joshua, the one supposed to be in charge, but both have plenty of the necessary charisma. Waddington does more than full justice to the aria “O first in wisdom”. By the last act, Norman has certainly earned his depiction in a gigantic photographic portrait. Treble Glyn Webster, in a red church cassock, makes a brief but effective appearance as the angel, carrying a sword as tall as himself as he delivers the bloodcurdling message that Jericho must be destroyed.

The chorus appears initially as a group of Holocaust survivors carrying suitcases, saved from the train to Auschwitz, yellow stars indicating bondage and slavery, and it is not long before “Ye sons of Israel” establishes the tone for the whole oratorio, with all sections strong, and just a tiny touch too much tremolo from the sopranos. I am not convinced by the weapons which were issued – a full set of identical assault rifles which seem a little too modern, grasped with a determination which might bring full marks from the North Korean leadership, but which are over-employed. Even so, the scene where the well-drilled and well-armed chorus sings with Joshua hovering above it at the top of a step-ladder is most memorable, terrifying even. I am still trying to work out why, in certain scenes (for example when Passover is celebrated) scores are used. A respectful gesture towards concert performances, perhaps.

Most stirring, predictably, is “See the conqu’ring hero comes”, which Handel recycled in Judas Maccabaeus. This involved Opera North’s impressive Children’s Chorus, which is directed by Justin Doyle.

***11