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Reviews

28 Jun 2019

Handel’s Belshazzar at The Grange Festival

What a treat to see members of The Sixteen letting their hair down. This was no strait-laced post-concert knees-up, but a full on, drunken orgy at the court of the most hedonistic ruler in the Old Testament.

Belshazzar: Grange Festival 2019

A review by David Truslove

Above: Robert Murray (Belshazzar) and the Choruses

Photo credit: Simon Annand

 

This is, of course, The Grange Festival’s production of Handel’s rarely staged oratorio Belshazzar. Kitted out variously in the guise of Babylonians, Jews and Persians and enhanced by The Grange Festival Chorus, The Sixteen along with their director Harry Christophers have been celebrating their 40th anniversary.

At a time of political uncertainty in Britain (alongside claims of anti-Semitism) and continuing unrest in the Middle East this production could not be more timely. The work’s opening soliloquy makes clear the transient nature of empire, comparing its deadly power to a monster that “robs, ravages and wastes the frighted world”. Sounds familiar? Oblique references to the current political climate this may be, but Handel’s dramatic oratorio may also have had striking contemporary resonances for the British people serving under a German monarch, George II, when it was first performed at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London in 1745.

In this performance in leafy Hampshire, a revolving model Tower of Babel and an intimidating defensive wall around the Babylonian city (just two of designer Robert Innes Hopkins’s imaginative creations) invoked notions of Trump Tower and controversial US border issues, yet these were more oblique references than heavy handed finger wagging. Handel’s setting of Charles Jennens’s libretto (he of Saul and Messiah) recounts the fall of Babylon and the liberation of the Jews by the conquering Persians whose diversion of the Euphrates (seen by Cyrus in a dream) allows them to access the city on a night of sacrilegious revelry. Pleas for Belshazzar not to violate the Israelite’s God go unheeded and a ghostly text predicts his downfall. Thanks to The Grange Festival’s artistic director Michael Chance this performance (not originally conceived for the stage) enabled an excellent team of soloists, the chorus and orchestra of the Sixteen to remind us of Handel’s wealth of theatrical instincts.

James Laing (Daniel).jpg James Laing (Daniel) with the Sixteen and the Grange Festival Choruses. Photo credit: Simon Annand.

Under Daniel Slater’s imaginative direction this fully-fledged operatic conception included, in addition to the Brueghel-inspired Tower, three eye-popping acrobats whose perilous movements brought visual spectacle to Belshazzar’s lavish quarters and suggested that they, like the king and his sybaritic entourage, might be on the brink of disaster. Sharply delineated costumes neatly outlined national identities; brightly garbed party-set Babylonians, darkly clad Jews with traditional prayer shawls and, for the Persian army, military tunics straight out of Star Wars. Getting in and out of this attire was something of an achievement during one chorus where, in just a few bars, the marauding Persians morph into body-writhing Babylonians. That said, the Sixteen readily embrace these roles, entering into the spirit with undisguised relish and acting their parts as if born to them.

No less involved is Robert Murray’s impressively sung Belshazzar whose gilt-edged tenor dispatches demanding arias with ease and portrays a character whose excesses alarm and revolt. Clearly beyond the control of his long-suffering Nitocris, he is unrepentant after the Jewish prophet Daniel interprets the writing on the wall - a captivating scene bringing emotional trauma to both. Claire Booth is a richly characterised Nitocris, who brings clear cut credulity to a grieving and finally humiliated mother, her compassion and anxieties for her son movingly expressed in ‘Alternate hopes and fears distract my mind’. Only her romantic attachment to Daniel seems to a strike false note - one that reduces the honour of both parties and unnecessarily creates a degree of exaggerated melodrama. James Laing fashions a scholarly-looking Daniel and sings with reassuring eloquence, while Christopher Ainslie as a benevolent Cyrus dazzles more for his bravura rendition of ‘Destructive war, thy limits know’ while clinging onto the side of the ziggurat than his valour as a heroic champion of the Persians. By contrast, Henry Waddington’s son fixated Gobrias was sung with spirited vengeance.

What consistently claims attention is the discipline and vigour of the augmented chorus. The Sixteen bring emotional substance to their distinct roles (whether mocking, imploring or warmongering) and textural clarity to their contrapuntal lines. The score is driven along with a sureness of touch from the podium - Christophers drawing incisive, well-balanced orchestral playing, completely at home in this gem-filled score.

David Truslove

Belshazzar - Robert Murray, Nitocris - Claire Booth, Cyrus - Christopher Ainslie, Daniel -James Laing, Gobrias - Henry Waddington, Acrobats (Haylee Ann, Craig Dagostino and Felipe Reyes); Director - Daniel Slater, Conductor - Harry Christophers, Designer - Robert Innes Hopkins, Movement Director - Tim Claydon, Lighting Designer - Peter Mumford, The Grange Festival Chorus & The Sixteen.

The Grange Festival, Hampshire; Saturday 22nd June 2019.

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