The listener must do one thing in order to enjoy Handel’s Belshazzar of 1744 to the full. That is to suspend all personal religious convictions for the evening, and subscribe whole-heartedly to the literal truth of the Old Testament as described in the oratorio. It is, of course, possible to enjoy the music without doing any such thing, but only by ceasing to be an impartial observer can its power be fully felt.
Of course, Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, were doing far more than simply reconstructing the biblical story of the fall of Babylon. They knew they were combining several religious and historical accounts, as well as relating the notion of the ancient Persians as humane conquerors to eighteenth century England. Still, there remains a strong conviction in righteousness and the supernatural, which Handel makes it remarkably easy for us to subscribe to (at least for the time we are in the concert hall) by ensuring the drama is so engaging.
This performance from Les Arts Florissants, under the baton of William Christie, was particularly clever in the way that it played out the drama. Every soloist developed their character to the full, the ‘staging’ ensuring that each aria had maximum impact on the audience, while still hinting sufficiently at the interaction with other characters. For example, as Iestyn Davies’ Daniel launched into ‘Lament not thus, O Queen, in vain!’ Rosemary Joshua’s Nitocris remained momentarily centre-stage so that we felt he was addressing her, before departing to the side so that he could deliver the aria unimpeded.
In a strong line-up, Davies held the edge with his ethereal counter-tenor voice. Subtle adjustments in the level of vibrato applied to notes in different parts of his range brought strong level of coherency, not to mention beauty, to his sound, and his translating of ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin’, which is largely a cappella, was particularly impressive. Another standout performance came from Caitlin Hulcup as Cyrus, with her warm, clear mezzo-soprano, and acting that marked her out as an enlightened ruler, only to be feared by tyrants.
Joshua herself took time to warm up, but particularly in Acts II and III presented a highly sweet sound that revealed a variety of nuances in the voice. Throughout she captured the very real concern that any mother would have for the wellbeing of her son, and her encounter with Cyrus following Belshazzar’s death was highly moving. As Gobrias, bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu produced a sensitive sound at the top of his register and was also effective when asserting the most forceful lines in the bass range. In between these, however, his voice frequently felt unfocused although he remained a strong actor from start to finish. His sadness and determination following the death of his son felt tangible, but he also captured the right tinge of humour when uttering ‘Behold the monstrous human beast wallowing in the excessive feast’.
Allan Clayton similarly built up his performance over the evening, allowing his light, easy and warm voice to come to fruition by degrees. His performance of ‘Let the deep bowl thy praise confess’ was very skilful as he adopted a slightly drunken persona, which only made the moment when he sighted the writing on the wall even more dramatic.
Under William Christie’s visually gentle, yet detailed and precise, conducting, the orchestra of Les Arts Florissants was on wondrous form, utilising a strong command of tempi and rhythms to generate sounds of searing beauty or intense drama. The same could be said of the choir, whether they were playing the contemplative Jews, hedonistic Babylonians or triumphant Persians.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk