mon 23/09/2019

Belshazzar, The Grange Festival review – songs of freedom | reviews, news & interviews

Belshazzar, The Grange Festival review – songs of freedom

Belshazzar, The Grange Festival review – songs of freedom

A star choir shines in Handel's tale of luxury brought low

Divinely decadent? Robert Murray as Belshazzarall images ©Simon Annand

Cut almost anywhere into the lesser-known seams of Handel’s oratorios and you may strike plentiful nuggets of the purest gold. It may not be quite the case that Handel's Belshazzar, its score studded with nearly-forgotten musical treasures, has entirely disappeared from view. A decade ago, the Berlin Staatsoper staged an all-star operatic version of this work from 1744, which later travelled to the Aix-en-Provence festival. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have recorded a meticulous account, and given it in concert here.

But as a fully-staged piece, as The Grange Festival’s director Michael Chance reminded us after Saturday’s performance, Handel’s story of the fall of Babylon, the triumph of the Persian leader Cyrus, and his liberation of the captive Jews, has dropped into near-oblivion in the country of its origin. At The Grange, Harry Christophers and the choir and players of The Sixteen joined a committed squad of soloists to present Belshazzar as a fully-fledged opera in Daniel Slater's production. It came complete with a revolving Tower of Babel, acrobats gyrating around the king’s debauched court, and the Persian army (at one point) executing a nifty onstage costume change to mutate into a horde of Babylonian party animals. 

As director, Slater worked hard, and often cleverly, to inject movement, colour and contrast into Handel’s high-concept, clash-of-civilisations theme. With a libretto by Charles Jennens (he of Messiah fame, or notoriety), Belshazzar resolves the triangular stand-off between sybaritic Babylonians, martial Persians and oppressed Jews into a succession of set-piece choruses, arias, duets and recitatives. For all their frequent splendour, they run the risk of stately immobility once transported to the lyric stage. With that looming tower, the gaudy fabrics and frolics of Belshazzar’s decadent court, and the crenellated walls of Babylon that parted and then closed again, Slater and designer Robert Innes Hopkins snagged the eye with a variety of visual coups. Meanwhile, The Sixteen – their forces enhanced by The Grange Festival Chorus – kept restlessly on the move as well. They morphed into shifting groups of different sizes, as well as switching outfits as they voiced the perspectives of each of this work’s three, mutually suspicious, tribes. In this operatic Belshazzar, much of Slater's stage business earned its keep and made its point – as when the Babylonians in their lurid disco garb mocked the drab Persians from their walls, or the sober-suited Jews in prayer-shawls encircled the night-club kitsch of Belshazzar’s court. 

Once or twice, Slater overplayed his hand to the extent that his gimmickry diverted attention from the musical excellence in evidence – above all, from The Sixteen and their allies. They sang, especially in the sublime choruses of the enslaved Jews, with a heart-lifting power that united dazzling vocal discipline with an emotional force that might have knocked down those walls by itself. In numbers such as “Sing, oh ye Heavens”, “Recall, Oh King, thy rash command” and the closing “I will magnify thee”, we have pieces that arguably should rank with the show-stoppers of Messiah. They also pre-date by a century the familiar liberation anthems of Verdi’s Nabucco

Why, then, did Slater have to insert distracting notions of his own at moments when the music can tell its own story with soaring eloquence? We can forgive him the sometimes intrusive twists, flips and somersaults of the acrobats (the rubber-limbed Haylee Ann, Craig Dagostino and Felipe Reyes), or the way that poor Cyrus had to belt out a key aria while precariously hanging on for dear life to the Tower of Babel (Christopher Ainslie, pictured above by Simon Annand), or even those always-tricky orgy scenes. With the boozy, lecherous Belshazzar and his bouts of “giddy dissipation”, sheer tackiness is part of the point. The king even sings a line praising the “Kind donor of the sparkling wine”, although he’s referring to his pet Babylonian deity. Less pardonable was the steamy affair, panting clinches and all, between the prophet Daniel and Belshazzar’s conscience-stricken mother Nitocris, who knows that the cruel humiliation of the Jews will bring down heaven’s wrath upon her wastrel son. This gratuitous dollop of sensationalism diminished her motivation, his nobility, and their touching bond. Cut it and no one would mind.

Otherwise, James Laing’s Daniel and Claire Booth’s Nitocris proved the pick of a dramatically engaging cast: his counter-tenor assured but reflective in its gently irresistible appeals to divine and human justice; her soprano radiant but vulnerable, torn between indulgent loyalty to her swinish royal son and sympathy for sagacious Daniel and the dignified Jews, as she sings that “Alternate hopes and fears distract my mind”. As the sottish king, Robert Murray by turns charmed, menaced and repelled, while his richly-coloured tenor sometimes channelled the operatic rulers of a later date than 1744. Among the puritanical Persians outside (then inside) the city walls, Christopher Ainslie’s Cyrus delivered not a straightforwardly heroic counter-tenor but a more subdued, lighter and more anguished reading of the part. Frail-sounding at first, he grew in authority and impact, a humane conqueror who “seeks no enemy except the tyrant” but evidently still feels saddled with doubts about his fitness for the victor’s job. More downright and steadfast, Henry Waddington’s bass lent an affecting mellow gravitas to the grief of the turncoat general Gobrias, pursuing with the Persians his revenge for Belshazzar’s slaughter of his son. 

With the ageless Harry Christophers securely in command, the musicians of The Sixteen pulled one Handelian gem after another out of their bag throughout a score that – as when the cantabile oboe ushers in the final hymn of gratitude – mixes tenderness, theatricality and grandeur. However, it was the choir (pictured above as the Babylonians, with Haylee Ann) that ultimately anchored the evening, as at last Cyrus promised Daniel and his suitcase-carrying people that they would indeed return from exile to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Helped along by a handful of majestic showpieces that deserve Messiah-level renown, the chorus in their Jewish guise became not just a forceful character in its own right but one that threatened to steal the whole show. With drama of this calibre often embedded in its music, Belshazzar calls for shrewd and effective choreography (which it received from Tim Claydon) but not meddlesome directorial stunts in order to thrive on stage. In their tuxes and gowns, the audience at a country-house opera auditorium should probably leave this tale of greed and luxury brought low feeling inspired, uplifted but ever-so-slightly chastened too. Projected this powerfully, Handel’s songs of freedom and resistance can move us far enough on their own. They need no attention-seeking, soap-operatic gloss. 

Comments

I would be grateful in the future that if you are going to mention the choreography that you name the choreographer. Credit where credit’s due and all that. Thank you. Tim Claydon.

Thanks Tim, that's done. However, I should point out that the relevant page of the season programme (84) has no choreography credit. BT

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