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G. F. Handel
04 Sep 2008

HANDEL: Belshazzar

Although performances of Handel’s more obscure large-scale works are relatively common in London, it is far less common that they are given in a venue as large and high-profile as the Royal Albert Hall, with a line-up of conductor and soloists that will attract a full house for a lengthy and static work on a hot summer evening.

G. F. Handel: Belshazzar

Paul Groves (Belshazzar), Rosemary Joshua (Nitocris), Bejun Mehta (Cyrus), Iestyn Davies (Daniel), Robert Gleadow (Gobrias). Choir of the Enlightenment. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Sir Charles Mackerras (cond.)
Prom 41 — 16 August 2008


And yet it happened, and Handel’s 1744 oratorio Belshazzar with libretto by Charles Jennens was brought to vivid and entertaining life by the veteran Handelian maestro, Sir Charles Mackerras.

The real highlight was the singing of the Choir of the Enlightenment, which could hardly have been better. Unlike many of London’s high-profile professional choirs, they are selected on a concert-by-concert basis, allowing casting decisions to be made with regard to which singers will be right for the work in hand. The bright forwardness of the sound in their opening chorus, ‘Behold, by Persia’s hero made’, was refreshing indeed, setting the tone for the rest of the evening, and they performed with impeccable ensemble throughout, with clear dramatic definition between their various guises as the Babylonians, Persians or Jews. The chorus bass William Gaunt delivered a particularly fine solo recitative in the tiny role of Arioch. Only in the feast scene did the sound from the chorus sound too clean and English, rather short on Babylonian debauchery.

Paul Groves sang the title role with a pleasant enough tone, but it was rather monochromatic, and being primarily a Mozartian, he did not seem nearly as comfortable or well-versed in the Handel idiom as his fellow soloists. He was also the only one of the five soloists not to make any attempt at facial and physical acting to complement his vocal performance; Belshazzar is, after all, supposed to be a king, and a strong-willed one at that.

At the emotional heart of the oratorio is the struggle of Nitocris, Belshazzar’s mother, to oppose the son she loves and allow him to be conquered and killed by the invading Persians. Here we had the luxury of the lovely, unaffected sound, intelligent characterisation and expressive vocal colour of soprano Rosemary Joshua.

The countertenor Bejun Mehta was very strong but a touch strident as Cyrus, the leader of the Persian army, while fellow countertenor Iestyn Davies exuded calm and noble piety as Daniel, making a beautiful sound in the process. Although Gobrias is only a small role, it was given maximum value by the young bass Robert Gleadow, a graduate of the Royal Opera’s young artists’ programme, who delivered the almost pictorial falling scales of ‘Behold the monstrous human beast/Wallowing in excessive feast’ with dramatic relish.

Rembrandt-Belsazar.pngKing Belshazzar of Babylon by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Mackerras conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in an account of the score which was robust, energetic and taut. There were several cuts — some, evidenced by gaps in the numbering in the concert programme, scheduled well in advance; others seemingly trimmed later in the day as there were several numbers and parts of numbers printed in the programme but absent from the performed version. In any case, it wasn’t only Mackerras’s brisk tempi which made the concert fly by in a full half hour less than the scheduled running time.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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