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George Frideric Handel (born Halle, 23 February 1685; died London, 14 April 1759)


Samuel Humphreys


Tragedy Athalie (1691) by Jean Racine (1639-1699)



First Performance: Oxford (Sheldonian Theatre), 10 July 1733.

First Performance in Scotland: Perth (St John's Kirk), 6 August 2014 (possibly earlier).



Athalia holds an unusual place among Handel's major choral works, in that, like the later Messiah, launched in Dublin, it was premiered outside London. Furthermore, the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford still survives, and is therefore the only building still in existence in which one of Handel's English oratorios was first played.

Athalia comes quite early among Handel's dramatic oratorios. However it was composed when his operatic career was at its height and he was turning out such great masterpiecess of the form as Orlando, Ariodante and Alcina.



Athalia, Queen of Judah (soprano)

Joas, rightful King of Judah (treble)

Joad, high priest (counter-tenor)

Josabeth, wife of Joad (soprano)

Mathan, priest of Baal (tenor)

Abner, captain of the Jewish forces (bass)


Plot Summary

Joad, Josabeth and other worshippers in the temple at Jerusalem pray for deliverance from their queen, Athalia, who still adheres to the old religion, Baal. Athalia herself, meanwhile, is in the palace, where she has alarming dreams of her death at the hands of a young boy. Mathan and his colleagues try to reassure her. They mount a search for the boy. This child is none other than Joas, who has been brought up by Joad and Josabeth, but they explain to the worshippers in the temple that he is, in fact, their rightful king.

At harvest time, celebrations are in progress. Joad cross-examines Abner, unsure of his views. Abner states, to Joad's relief, that his loyalties would be to the true king, if such a person could be found. When Athalia comes to the temple, Joad explains, following her questioning, that the boy is not his son, but an orphan. Athalia is doubtful, and offers to take the boy to the palace. He refuses, criticising Athalia's religious views. She leaves, but Joad and Josabeth are worried about the future - Joas still has no idea of his true identity.

Joad has had a vision in which Athalia is defeated and dies. Joas, when asked who he would model himself on, chooses King David. He is promptly declared to be the rightful king, and when Athalia enters the temple she sees Joas enthroned. She continues in defiant mood while the others rejoice at her defeat.



The first recording made of Athalia is still a fascinating reading.

Oiseau-Lyre (1985)

Academy of Ancient Music. Conductor Christopher Hogwood.

Joan Sutherland (Athalia), Emma Kirkby (Josabeth); Aled Jones (Joas), James Bowman (Joad), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Mathan), David Thomas (Abner).

The apparently jarring stylistic clash between the veteran Dame Joan as the villainness and the band of up to the minute authenticists was a deliberate decision of the production team. The intention was to emphasise the cultural and age gap between Athalia and her opponents, and in that the recording succeeds admirably. She had been a pioneer of the Handel revival twenty-five years earlier, and the other four adults still seem like great singers of Handel from the next generation. And we should not forget young Aled Jones, a wonderful treble in his day.

The Cast

 captain of the Jewish forces
 Baalite queen of Judah and daughter of Jezebel
 high priest
 king of Judah
 wife of Joad
 priest of Baal, formerly a Jewish priest

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