Art is always political. Discuss.
In 1833 Charles Edward Stuart, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie, the focus of the Jacobites’ claim to the British throne, was just 13. It makes for a nice coincidence that the key central character in Pinchgut Opera’s new production of Handel’s 1733 oratoria Athalia is also 13.
Exactly how much George Frideric Handel knew about Charles Edward Stuart when he chose to base his new work on the Old Testament story of cruel Queen Athalia and the boy king who is chosen by her people to take her place is open to debate.
But there’s no doubting that, in the feverish political climate of the 1700s, yanked to and fro by questions of succession and religion, his choice of subject matter was wickedly provocative.
Athalia is a work of dramatic contrasts: of fast and slow, right and wrong, old and new, pure and bloody. The beauty of this work, and of this production, directed by Lindy Hume, is that you are never quite sure which is which.
The central dichotomy is beautifully encapsulated in the casting of two magnificent, distinctive singers in the roles of Josabeth, the faithful mother, and Athalia, the tyrannical queen.
Miriam Allan is a towering Josabeth, carrying the largest role by far in the work with an understated grace and tireless clarity. From the fresh naivety of the opening song to her terrifying high notes as she curses her enemies, this is a formidable performance.
The oversexed, overbearing Athalia is no match for Josabeth’s virtue. Emma Pearson, however, is irresistible, bringing a luxuriant thrill to the title role, vocally and dramatically. Her supple, daring ornamentation and rangy consistency, not to mention a couple of killer frocks, light up the stage.
Her sidekick, the weaselly Mathan, ably sung by a brash-toned Brenton Spiteri, becomes the real boo hiss villain when his bloodied hands cannot – will not – save his queen.
Meanwhile, the mellifluous countertenor of Clint van der Linde as steadfast Joad keeps Josabeth on track, while David Greco as Abner, the equivocal Captain of the Guards, eventually lends his charming growl to the Israelites’ cause.
So who wins? Good or evil? In terms of the narrative, Team Josabeth grabs the crown. As a piece of art the outcome is much more muddy. Indeed, the chorus find themselves playing both sides, and the music – the Orchestra of the Antipodes brilliant and bristling as ever — resolutely refuses to play favourites.
Perhaps it comes back to the youngest cast member, Freddy Shaw. Shaw gives a rare, raw performance as the messiah (or the young pretender, according to which side you take). His musicianship is assured and the contrast in the fragility of a boy treble versus the male countertenor is in itself moving.
But perhaps his finest moment is in the closing chorus where the Israelites give thanks to Jehovah as they celebrate their new king. In this production Eliakim, aka Joas the boy king, does not join in the rejoicing. Instead, he stands silent, his face gradually dissolving into a heart-wrenching picture of dismay and fear at what just happened. Spine-tingling.
Athalia will be broadcast live on ABC Classic FM on 26 June.