Yesterday's excellent performance of Handel's "Athalia" at the University of Maryland was a rare occasion, though it shouldn't be, since this is one of Handel's most vigorous and colorful oratorios.
The story of Athalia, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, is nearly ideal for opera -- or for oratorio in societies where opera is out of favor. As the Bible tells, she seized the throne of Judah during an unsettled time, killed off all available members of her (royal) family who might contest her right to the crown, established the idolatrous worship of Baal and generally wrought havoc among the people of Israel. But she had missed one grandson, the year-old Joas, in her slaughter of heirs to the throne. And he was proclaimed king during an insurrection in which Athalia was killed.
Strong stuff, perfect for the bold, colorful dramatic writing that was one of Handel's specialties, whether he labeled the product opera or oratorio. But in "Athalia," there was one problem. The libretto, adapted from a text by the great French tragedian Racine, dropped or buried practically all of the story's background information and dramatic action, leaving only highlights to be set to music. It is intelligible to those who have studied the original story carefully or who have bought a libretto and read the text and notes in detail. But to those who do not choose to do such homework, it can easily seem to be a series of disconnected monologues and stirring eight-part choruses.
Disjointed or not, "Athalia" is full of great moments: finely drawn musical character portraits, heaven-storming choruses (including a "Hallelujah" that rivals the one in "Messiah") and arias that catch most of the principal characters at one time or another in extreme states of military valor, guilt, fear, triumph or just plain nastiness. It is, if you don't care too much for continuity, a musical feast, with unusually rich orchestration to support the superb writing for solo and choral voices. There is also a solidly establishmentarian anthem ("hail, hail the royal youth . . . bless the true church, and save the king") for the coronation of young Joas. It might go well in a command performance when the eagerly awaited royal couple reach Washington.
Yesterday's performance was fit for a king. The University of Maryland Chorus -- one of the best here or anywhere else -- responded powerfully to the direction of Paul Traver; the orchestra (built on a nucleus from the Smithsonian Chamber players) had a good grasp of Handelian style; and all the soloists (despite a few edgy moments) were good. They were sopranos Linda Mabbs and Judith Nelson -- both fine Baroque specialists; tenor James McDonald (agile and light in tone); Derek Lee Ragin (an excellent countertenor); Christopher Pittenger (an impressive boy treble in the role of Joas); and baritone Gordon Hawkins, who is not a Baroque specialist but sounded like one, moving his big voice with great agility through Handel's florid ornamentation.