In recent months I’ve seen rather too much of Biblical Israelites (and, indeed, Classical and Renaissance heroes) in head scarves and trilbies, demob suits and dowdy post-war dresses: the previous evening the cinema transmission of the Royal Opera’s Nabucco had seen a drab character-less production redeemed by superb singing. However, with Handel’s Joshua at Opera North, my initial glum sense of déjà vu passed with the acceptance that this is a relevant and effective production style for this opera.
Joshua is a hybrid of oratorio and opera, an oratorio relying heavily on mighty choruses, but originally staged in the opera house and possessing some rudimentary characterisation. The audience is, if anything, more occupied with a new nation establishing itself by war than with the fates of Joshua, his general Caleb and Caleb’s daughter. So a precise updating to the early years of the post-war state of Israel works dramatically and emotionally. Likewise the bare stage, with images of destruction and rural projections for the gentler scenes, fits as well with the dramatised oratorio as with these days of austerity in the opera house.
Charles Edwards is his own designer and his directorial style is similarly economical. He works hard, with differing levels of success, to suggest Joshua’s agony at the responsibilities of power and the hidden conflict within the House of Caleb, none of which, I suspect, Handel and his unknown librettist would have recognised, but he is not afraid to line up the chorus front-stage to make a glorious noise before the Lord.
The personal dramas centre more on Caleb than Joshua and Henry Waddington cuts a stalwart figure, dignified or passionate vocally as occasion demands and able to command the stage even in stillness. Fflur Wyn’s sweetly agile soprano as his daughter Achsah and the soaring and intense counter-tenor of the outstanding Jake Arditti as her lover Othniel counter-balance all the martial might. As Joshua Daniel Norman’s unusually conversational recitatives suggest the character’s humanity, but he is a rather understated hero. 11-years-old Glyn Webster is thoroughly assured as the Angel who brings Jehovah’s instructions and – in this production – watches over Joshua thereafter.
Stephen Layton initially has the occasional problem keeping stage and pit together, but conducts a vital performance of dynamic variety, with the fervent choruses radiating power and all sections of the orchestra taking their opportunities to shine, from martial brass to pastoral flute.
Joshua runs at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 4 May. For further information visit www.operanorth.co.uk