Les Arts Florissants – Handel’s Belshazzar

Belshazzar – Oratorio in three acts to a libretto by Charles Jennens [sung in English with English surtitles; performed in the edition by Pascal Duc]

Belshazzar – Allan Clayton
Nitocris – Rosemary Joshua
Cyrus – Caitlin Hulcup
Daniel – Iestyn Davies
Gobrias – Jonathan Lemalu

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 13 December, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

William Christie. Photograph: Simon FowlerDating from 1744, Belshazzar dates from the fruitful decade in which Handel perfected the art of the English oratorio, with Messiah, Samson, Semele and Hercules already accomplished masterpieces. Belshazzar is perhaps one of the most dramatically taut and coherent of the religious oratorios, although even here there is a wider message about the precariousness of political power and the distinction between liberty and licentiousness.

This performance began with an almost abrasive and dismissive account of the Overture (without repeats), such that I might betoken a generally terse and brisk reading throughout. Fortunately this suspicion proved unfounded and the performance was generally sustained and broad, though also instilled with dramatic momentum. Indeed it was given almost as a semi-staged, with the soloists coming forwards at the appropriate times and effecting some limited but suggestive action. The only slight distraction was the continual swapping of scores among the soloists on the music stand at the front, suggesting that their performances were not quite from memory.

Caitlin Hulcup as Cyrus was perhaps the least nuanced in her realisation, portraying him with a generally unyielding confidence and dignity, though occasionally mellowing into humility and ready submission to the will of (the Jewish) deity. The aria ‘Great God’ for instance would have been more touchingly poignant if it had been sung with a more hushed prayerfulness. But in defence of Hulcup’s interpretation, it stood, rightly, as the antithesis of Allan Clayton’s account of Belshazzar. On his first appearance in ‘Let festal joy triumphant reign’, Clayton was full-throated, appropriately characterising the pompous and arrogant attitude of the doomed king; but even as he depicted Belshazzar’s descent into drunken revelry he maintained a firm grasp of the tricky and speedy writing that was commendable.

Where the parts of Cyrus and Belshazzar stand in direct contrast to each other, the roles of Nitocris and Gobrias have something in common insofar as they both have sons who are the cause of lament – in Nitocris’s case because of Belshazzar’s waywardness, in Gobrias’s on account of his son’s death. As one would expect from Rosemary Joshua, she was vocally secure during her varied numbers, but maintained the nobility and seriousness of Nitocris’s character; her enjoyment of the ornaments in the ravishing aria ‘The leafy honours of the field’ might have suggested though that she would have been more inclined to join Belshazzar’s orgies than shun them. However, Joshua’s astute sense of the drama was evident even in Nitocris’s lengthy opening recitative, reflecting on the mutability of empire and earthly glory (setting the scene for the rest of the oratorio) where she brought both conviction and pathos. In the ensuing aria ‘Thou, God most high’, with its odd, angular melodic profile, Joshua gave out the phrases as sighs, suggesting that the constancy of God’s rule is not so obviously a comfort when it stands as the corollary of the precariousness of earthly power.

As Gobrias, Jonathan Lemalu was able to shift effectively between moods of sorrow for his deceased son, revenge, and resolve to follow Cyrus in the latter’s campaign against Belshazzar and the Assyrians. Moving, in particular, was the lament for his son in ‘Opress’d with never-ceasing grief’, but there was looseness, even a sour twang to Lemalu’s voice which is not suited to the vocal agility required in Handel. Especially in the lower regions his tone tended to growl, thereby losing precision. Still, his deep bass tone provided a good contrast to the higher tessituras of the other soloists.

In his role as Daniel, Iestyn Davies was a model of precision and tonal purity. The mellifluous, innocent character of his voice was well suited to Daniel’s steady, dependable character as a prophet who speaks and interprets God’s words and signs – not least those written by the disembodied hand at Belshazzar’s feast. Davies sang those Hebrew words almost as an incantation of Jewish chant, conveying an aptly mysterious tone. Throughout he sang with a characteristically seamless wholesomeness of voice, and having brought the captive Jews through the trauma of their exile in Babylon as Daniel, it was appropriate that he took the solo in the concluding chorus, urging them and their Persian saviours to magnify and praise God the king (a consoling chorus which Handel adapted from one of the much earlier Chandos Anthems, itself drawing on an even more youthful violin concerto).

It would also be fair to note that the chorus of Les Arts Florissants ably acquitted itself as a dramatic role as effectively as the individual singers – as Babylonians, Jews and Assyrians. The choristers accorded to the latter two groups a broader, graver character, compared to their earthier and more playful way of manifesting the Babylonians. To this end the orchestra provided exemplary support and also in helping to delineate the drama’s action and meaning, such as in the scurrying semiquavers to evoke the bubbles and froth of the sparkling wine referred to in the Babylonians’ ‘Ye tutelary gods of our empire’, in describing Belshazzar’s horror as the hand writes on the wall, or in projecting ceremonial splendour, replete with the burnished sound of the trumpets. That so many disparate elements hung together as a coherent whole was due to William Christie’s detailed direction that always had the score’s wider structure in view. This was a compelling performance.

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