Handel's Belshazzar was the oratorio of choice for renowned music group Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican last week. The group was famously set up in France in 1979 by the American-born William Christie, eventually becoming an international household name for its critically acclaimed performances and recordings of Baroque operas on period instruments. Having previously only heard Les Arts Florissants in recorded form, they had much to live up to for me as a live act.
Belshazzar recounts the story, from the book of Daniel, of the eponymous Babylonian king's hedonistic lifestyle and tyrannous reign, which is brought to its downfall by Cyrus, Prince of Persia. Although it is fairly well known by name (perhaps in part because of Walton's celebrated oeuvre Belshazzar's Feast), it is not an especially popular oratorio. Musically, it is spectacular, showing off Handel's creative flair to its fullest. Dramatically, however, it is somewhat stifled by librettist Charles Jennens' bringing together Biblical narrative, the writings of Herodotus and Xenophon, and texts sympathetic to his own, pro-Jacobite cause. This clumsy mix caused a rift between librettist and composer, the latter making several curtailments to the libretto, both to reduce its length (which would otherwise have stood at over four hours) and to increase its dramatic potential. Even in its final version, the use of the chorus as Jews, Persians and Babylonians – thus giving it an unusually prominent role in comparison to the individual solo roles – makes for a work in which it is not easy for the audience to engage.
Les Arts Florissants overcame these difficulties in part. The decision to make it more or less a concert performance, as opposed to a semi- or even fully staged production, did little to help convey the storyline, but it certainly allowed the audience to focus on the music, which was masterfully rendered by the excellent band, who were – as on their recordings – precise and punchy. Christie's enthusiastic, yet somehow relaxed conducting style seemed to suggest that he trusted his musicians to do the job well.
A muscular, unusually rich sound from the chorus was regrettably marred by sibilance as the singers occasionally failed to come off together at the ends of phrases. There were several enthusiastic faces, but also some disinterested ones, and it was hard not to rely on the surtitles, as opposed to their expression, to get a sense of the story.
Unfortunately, the soloists that stepped out from the chorus for the occasional number were no match for the stellar cast of soloists that had been booked to sing the main roles. The title role of Belshazzar was sung by the young tenor Allan Clayton, a name perhaps less familiar than some of the others with him on the stage, but a warm and expressive voice which matched them very well indeed. The drama on stage was limited, but his subtle allusion to being three sheets to the wind at his feast raised a chuckle from the audience. It is almost needless to say that Rosemary Joshua – the doyenne of Handelian singers – was characteristically radiant as Nitocris, Belshazzar's mother, her voice capturing perfectly one of the more emotive roles in this work. Replacing Christopher Purves in the role of Gobrias, a Babylonian supporter of Cyrus, was Jonathan Lemalu, who proved that his almighty voice could also be toned down to convey sensitively the various moods demanded by the role. Iestyn Davies had a sublime, pure tone of voice that was ideal in the near-narrative role of Daniel; it was a real pleasure to hear and see him bring his great Handelian experience to the stage once more. The Australian mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup brought less drama to the role of Cyrus than might have been possible, but she showed off her technical mastery to full effect; her control in some difficult coloratura passages, and a fruity lower register, being especially impressive.
Although this performance left certain things to be desired, I was not disappointed – it is a tricky oratorio to put on, especially because the libretto is not the most appealing. A little more drama might have improved things, but in what was a concert performance, it was a treat to be able to hear and focus on the wonderful music.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS