“Never has there been such applause and marks of admiration,” said the London Magazineon the occasion of Athalia’s world premiere in July of 1733. This was not always a given, considering how swift the process of composition was – Handel likely began writing it in May of that same year, completing it the following June. His third English oratorio, it’s something of a rarity, with many finding their way to it via the Christopher Hogwood recording with Dame Joan in the title role.

Emma Pearson. Photo © Robert Catto

Librettist Samuel Humphreys gleans inspiration from a Racine tragedy by the same name, which in turn fashioned a narrative from brief passages in the Old Testament. A simple enough plot to follow, it tells the story of Athalia, who has secured her reign by killing off rival claimants and introduced the worship of Baal into the kingdom of Judah. Unfortunately for her, Josabeth, wife of the Levite priest Joad, has rescued the last surviving heir to the throne, Joas (a handily alliterative trio), keeping him under wraps until he is old enough to assert his own claim to the kingdom.

In Humphreys’ treatment,...