Last night in Herbst Theatre, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, led by Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan, performed George Frideric Handel’s HWV 52 three-act oratorio Joshua, setting a libretto by Thomas Morell. As those familiar with the Old Testament know, Moses led the Children of Israel out of the “House of Bondage” (Egypt) to return to the promised land of Canaan. However, during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, God punished Moses for rash behavior by declaring that he would only see Canaan but would not be allowed to enter it. Thus, when the Children of Israel reached the Jordan River, Moses ceded his leadership to Joshua.
Canaan, of course, was populated with other tribes after the Israelites followed Joseph into Egypt, expecting a better life. The first twelve chapters of the Book of Joshua are thus concerned with how the Children of Israel recovered control of Canaan through a series of bloody military engagements. Morell’s libretto covers a few of these, including the fall of Jericho and the defeat of the Israelites at Ai. However, the narrative ends with their triumph, marked by a repurposing of the chorus “See, the conqu’ring hero comes!” from Handel’s HWV 63 three-act oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Morell also decided to spice up the plot with a romance between the young warrior Othniel and Achsah, daughter of Caleb, one of the spies that first crossed the Jordan River and is presented by Morell as Joshua’s second-in-command.
Romantic interludes, however, cannot mask the fact that the story itself is one of brutal military action and blatant triumphalism. Militarism was very much in the British mindset at the time. As Bruce Lamott observed in his notes for the program book, Joshua was composed in 1747, a year after the Battle of Culloden, one of the bloodiest efforts to maintain a united Britain. Morell’s was a text that appealed to righteous patriots who saw the uncouth Scots to the north as a latter-day version of Canaanite brutes. As they say, histories are written by the victors.
However, the history that tells its own story is another matter. In that context the present-day view of Morell’s text cannot be anything other than disconcerting. Conflict in the Middle East is more brutal than ever, and religious extremism seems to be inflaming increasing sectors of many populations. As a result, there is something almost squirm-inducing about a text that seems to be about little more than a historical effort to make the Children of Israel great again.
By all rights none of this should reflect on either Handel’s music or the thoroughly engaging account of that music that McGegan elicited from both instrumental and vocal ensembles, as well as the soloists enacting the roles of Joshua (tenor Thomas Cooley), Othniel (countertenor Daniel Taylor), Caleb (baritone William Berger), Achsah (soprano Yulia Van Doren), and the angel that commands Joshua to lead his army across the Jordan River (soprano Gabrielle Haigh). There was a generous supply of choral work, all of which was given a dazzling account, even though all the selections required no more than four parts. (Each of those parts was sung by only six voices, providing just the right balance against the instrumental resources.) Nevertheless, these were not texts that are usually associated with a time that is supposed to dwell on “peace on earth, good will towards men.”