Belshazzar – Barbican – Friday 13th December 2012

Belshazzar:  an Oratorio by G.F. Handel

Allan Clayton Belshazzar
Rosemary Joshua Nitocris
Caitlin Hulcup Cyrus
Iestyn Davies Daniel
Jonathan Lemalu Gobrias
Les Arts Florissants William Christie conductor

It was  a very lucky Friday 13th for all of us at the Barbican.

Handel’s Belshazzar was composed in 1745. It was a remarkable year for history – the year of the last rebellion on English soil and the final failure of the Stuart cause.

Belshazzar was the product of Handel’s collaboration with Charles Jennens who had already provided the composer with the librettos for Saul; Israel & Egypt and, Messiah. It was to be their last collaboration. Indeed the two had argued before and they made up for Belshazzar but were destined to argue again.

Handel was at the height of his powers. His genius was busily transforming oratorio. But as ever he demanded a huge amount from his librettist and his demands often made for uneasy relations.  The victory at Culloden would trigger two of his most triumphalist oratorios –  An Occasional Oratorio (Feb 1746) and Judas Maccabeus ( April,1747) – the latter perhaps the master work of this musical genre –  akin to say Verdi’s Aida for its naked theatricality.

Belshazzar like most any work has is weaknesses and the first part of the oratorio demands from the principles great vocal projection and feeling if they are to really command the audience. The second and third acts whip along at the great pace. This performance had it moments of undiluted glory and perfection. There were times when all the soloists delivered of themselves some remarkable singing and the chorus throughout struck just the right note – or runs of notes. Belshazzar has some truly remarkable writing for chorus. Handel allows himself to explore three very different civilizations – the Jewish – solemn and stolid; the Persian noble and just; and the Babylonian dissolute and corrupt. The chorus of intoxicated Babylonians is famous and is destined to inspire a find drunken echo later in Haydn\’s Seasons.  There is the great chorus ‘Recall oh King thy rash command’ ; &, later, ‘Great God who is but darkly known’; and, finally, ‘Tell in out among the heathens’ and  ‘I will magnify Thee’ the latter cribbed from the Chandos Anthems and both so beautifully rendered it brought tears to my eyes.

Iestyn Davies gave us a reedy toned Daniel which was finely sung but never quite took flight. He did justice to  ‘O sacred Oracles’ but perhaps Daniel is a bit too much of a goody-goody to enjoy singing. But Belshazzar sung by Alan Clayton has plenty of fun and Clayton really sounded like a great Handelian tenor in the mould of Robert Tear. Belshazzar joins the action quite late in Act I but once he did the performance came alive. Clayton is a man to watch. Rosemary Joshua sang the part of Nitocris – Belshazzar’s mother. She sang some of the arias with great artistry and feeling. Again though she never seemed quite to inhabit the character – a woman who if anything is over-full of worthy Roman sentiments and her unrelenting nobility makes her a hard ask of any singer or actor. Caitlin Hulcup had it better with the noble Cyrus and she gave a lyrical account of the hero of the piece. Cyrus’s father Gobrias was fluidly sung by Jonathan Lemalu –  but his voice particularly early on in Act I seemed under-powered.

William Christie was just marvelous and Les Arts Florissants played magnificently. Christie has just such a prefect sense of this music. It not only sounds absolutely right but because it is authentic he manages to infuse it with his own passion and feeling for Handel’s music. Pure genius meets prefect harmony –  I could have sat through it all over again!

I do wish I could hear them do Judas Maccabeus before I shuffle off my mortal coil. This link takes you to the wonderful chorus – Sing unto God with high affection raise

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