The Star of David is everywhere, as a symbol of Jewish unity. The senior Israelite wears a kippah, denoting respect for God’s law. Joshua starts off with a machine gun, the archetypal freedom fighter, and ends in a suit, every bit the modern statesman. There’s only one place this could be – Palestine in the 1940s. An 18th-century oratorio has been turned into a metaphor for the establishment of the Jewish state.
Let’s not argue about how and why Israel came into being. It certainly wasn’t as simplistic as Opera North’s new staging makes out. The problem with this disappointingly flat show lies not in sloppy updating, which never got in the way of a good operatic spectacle, but in director-designer Charles Edwards’ failure to turn an Old Testament tale into living drama. His production is less an interpretation, more a cosmetic dressing-up. The chorus – the driving force of Handel’s oratorios – do nothing but stand in line and sing from songbooks, like a concert in costume. The principals fail to develop beyond symbols.
Are Handel’s oratorios a lost cause on the opera stage? Half a century ago that was the conventional wisdom, but Peter Sellars’ reinvention of Theodora at Glyndebourne in 1996 told us otherwise, and there have been similar instances since then. Static choruses – even when leavened by powder-puffs of dry ice, as here – are not the way to go about it. Tuesday’s first-night performance seemed to go on for ever.
Opera North’s long-time faith in the Handel repertory is nevertheless vindicated by the way its orchestra has adapted to period style, giving a more polished performance under Stephen Layton than most other resident opera house bands. The chorus sings lustily, and the casting of young Jake Arditti as Othniel, Joshua’s main love interest, is an inspired stroke. Arditti’s noble, pure countertenor sounds so natural that you could mistake it for a soprano. He also happens to be a good actor, with the sort of clean, rippling torso that transfixes an audience. The rest of the cast – Daniel Norman in the title role, Henry Waddington’s Caleb and Fflur Wyn’s Achsah – need a stronger director.