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Belshazzar

by on 21 June 2019

Power, Piety and Pity Flow from Sybaritic Sensuality

Belshazzar

by Georg Frideric Handel, libretto by Charles Jennens

The Grange Festival, at The Grange, Northington until 6th July

A review by Mark Aspen

If you want a good rip-roaring story, there is probably no better place to go than the Old Testament. There are tales on an epic scale, as armies besiege cities, Jericho … or Babylon. There are cities of debauchery, Sodom and Gomorrah, … or Babylon. Or Babylon … here you have the best of the worst worlds, an army besieges while the city debauches. Hence, the fall of Babylon at the end of the reign of Belshazzar is a gift for an opera, and particularly if large scale choral singing is your forte (in both senses of the word).

Large scale choral works, oratorios and opera, were unquestionably a forte of Georg Frideric Handel, but to the devout Handel and his pious and staid librettist Charles Jennens, Belshazzar had a strong moral and religious message (and possibly hints of a political one).

The excesses of the eponymous Belshazzar, King (or strictly speaking co-regent) of Babylon, as the conquering Persians attack his city, are certainly strong meat; and Daniel Slater, the director of The Grange Festival’s powerful production of Belshazzar, takes every opportunity to squeeze out every delicious drop of juice from that meat.

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Handel conceived Belshazzar as an oratorio and it is indeed rare for it to be presented as a fully staged opera. Michael Chance, The Grange Festival’s ebullient Artistic Director, tells us that this is the first UK production* of Belshazzar as an opera in “living memory”. The dedicated and knowledgeable Chance knows how to pick his season, and this opera is more than a dramatised oratorio, it is a triumph!

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Slatter’s setting reeks of voluptuousness, think Peter Greenaway meets Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The setting has a tripartite artistic concept, design, lighting and movement. Robert Innes Hopkins set design is an inspired by the iconic image of Breughel’s Tower of Babel. We feel we have to let pass the anachronism of a couple of millennia between Genesis and Daniel, but then again this tower is truncated and no longer has the conceit to reach heaven. It is still a structure of some substance set with precarious footholds for the cast to clamber on. The tower is mounted on a revolve and turns to reveal the sumptuous golden walled palace of Belshazzar. Then Peter Mumford’s lighting design follows the various moods of the plot, colour-coding emotions and emphasizing place. We can be with the licentious Babylonians inside the massive city walls, or outside with the haughty Persians. The third impressive element is the movement, individuals become masses: crowds whose every move underlines the action, sometime disciplined armies, sometime mobs, sometime orgiastic writhing heaps of sensuality. Movement director Tim Claydon’s choreography is a well-studied and accurately observed replication of the collective instincts of the crowd. It delivers just as much impact as the large scale operatic or dramatic blockbusters mounted on the London stages by directors such as Deborah Warner.

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Claydon’s palette is the augmented festival chorus comprising The Sixteen Choir and The Grange Festival Chorus. It is unusual in a review to mention the chorus before the principals, but in this production the chorus makes such a magnificent visual and vocal foil to set off the talents of the individual performers. Handel gives the chorus much to do, and they are certainly kept busy repeatedly changing costumes to become Babylonians, Jews, Medes or Persians. But Handel gives them music of grandeur and magnificence, and the augmented chorus of some 27 singers bring this out with musical vibrancy and unimpeachable coordination. Each of the peoples has its own character. The Babylonians, gaudy and brash, mock the besiegers from atop the walls, “Hark, Cyrus! A tedious time! To make it short, thy wise attempt will find us sport”. The Jews, dressed in black are pious and are submissive, until Belshazzar profanes their sacred chalice, “Recall, O king, thy rash command”. The Persians, determined and confident, hold the moral high ground, “Of things on earth, proud man must own, falsehood is found in man alone.” The chorus differentiate between each with well-polished skill.

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The visual impact of the chorus, increased to thirty by the presence of three skilled acrobats (Haylee Ann, Craig Dagostio and Felipe Reyes), comes from the fluent and expressive choreographed movement that almost articulates the collective consciousness of the group, as cowed prisoners, marching disciplined armies, or decadent courtiers. The depraved licentiousness of the Babylonian court reaches its depths in the Feast of Sesach, an unbridled drunken orgy of sex in all its versions and perversions, which continues even as the Persians besiege the city.

Belshzz10And from the innermost core of the depravity there bursts like an erupting volcano the lip-smacking figure of the bisexual tyrant, Belshazzar. Robert Murray makes a remarkable Belshazzar, his muscular tenor negotiating the intricacies of the score with aplomb, and obviously relishing acting the reckless despot. The sybaritic sensuality of his court is played out in Haylee Ann’s aerial ballet, on a stream of golden silk, dangled before Belshazzar’s popping eyes. She climbs the silk to retrieve the Jewish chalice … Belshazzar drinks from it! Then a sudden staccato violin chord as he faints in fear! At first it is only he who sees the Writing on the Wall.

Belshzz7Daniel, the charismatic prophet of royal Jewish descent, is brought forth, as only he can decipher The Writing. James Laing, as a long haired, bespectacled and somewhat studious Daniel, conveys calm and dignified piety. Laing (soon to revive his “sleazy” Terry in Nico Muhly’s Marnie at ENO) has a finely pointed countertenor voice, which emanates authority “Thou hast not glorified, but hast blasphem’d.” As he interprets the portentous message, he places a healing and exorcising hand on Belshazzar, who is spiritually slain.

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The countertenor is a stock in modern interpretations of Baroque opera, and The Grange Festival has built a strong reputation in the Baroque with its yearly production of early opera. (Michael Chance himself is of course a renowned countertenor.) It is interesting to hear the subtleties of timbre and approach that exist within the countertenor range. Christopher Ainslie, who played Ottone in The Grange Festival’s Agrippina last year (and Oberon in A Midsummers’ Night’s Dream at ENO) is now Cyrus in this production, Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor. He portrays the patient confident Cyrus with an assertive countertenor, slightly more coloured than Laing’s defined approach, imbuing the character with considered audacity.

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Cyrus’s audacity is at its most evident in his bold tactic of diverting the Euphrates river which encircles the city, an historic detail that Jennens gleaned from Herodotus rather than the Old Testament, but which embodies the out-of-the-box daring-do of the character. This trait is highlighted by the juxtaposition of Cyrus’s more conventional military man, his general Gobrias, scored as a bass. The men are depicted as mutually supportive. Gobrias is “oppress’d with never-ceasing grief” over the murder of his son by Belshazzar, but Cyrus urges him to revenge. Henry Waddington portrays Gobrias as a tragic figure for whom “no hope, but in revenge, is left”. He relishes in his delivery of his observation of Belshazzar, “Behold the monstrous human beast, wallowing in excessive feast” and the drama of the descending scales paints a vivid picture. It is Gobrias who kills Belshazzar with his own hand, and in a dramatic coda we feel his revulsion as he hands over the bloodied sword to Cyrus.

Belshzz4In spite of all the swashbuckling, there are profound depths to Belshazzar. It is a three-way struggle between reason, immorality and spirituality, embodied in each of the three peoples, the good, the bad and the pious. Nitocris, Belshazzar’s mother, is a well-developed character who is torn by the heart-rending dilemma between condemning Belshazzar’s sins and protecting him as the son she loves, whilst filled with foreboding about his fate. Slater places Nitocris as the parentheses around the opera. During the overture we see the veiled Nitocris mourning alongside the coffin of her late husband, one of the four Babylonian kings assassinated during the bloody six years following the death of Nebuchadnezzar. Finally, as a visual epilogue to the opera, we see the veiled Nitocris mourning alongside the coffin of her late son. Claire Booth’s Nitocris sincere characterisation and expressive soprano vocal colour exudes the emotional language at the heart of the opera’s message.

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Slater’s Belshazzar drips with symbolism. Some is obvious, witness the lascivious things the Babylonians do with luscious bowls of fruit, some less so. Why does Daniel end up locked in erotic embraces with Nitocris after Belshazzar’s death? There is nothing in the libretto or score to suggest this. Maybe it contrasts with Cyrus, for whom the libretto has him declaring to Nitocris, “Be still a queen, a mother still, a son in Cyrus you shall find”. A bit Freudian-Oedipal it seems, so perhaps the implication is that Daniel will become a spiritual step-father to Cyrus. Are we meant to read that much in?

The Orchestra of The Sixteen, under the baton of its director Harry Christophers, is at one with the piece. Christophers moves the opera along at just the right pace, and the orchestra and the augmented Sixteen Choir are in perfect balance. Indeed, they have had a long time working together as this year marks the fortieth anniversary of The Sixteen, which Christophers founded in the summer of 1979.

With all the flair that The Grange Festival has for the baroque, its Belshazzar is a tour de force, a parable of power, piety and pity told with epic spectacle and artistic finesse. Yet another must see for The Grange.

Mark Aspen
June 2019

Photography by Simon Annand

* Rene Jacobs rather  lacklustre production featured at the Aix en Provence Festival in 2008.

From → Opera, Reviews

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