Review: Handel’s Belshazzar, RNCM

Posted on January 28, 2010

Despite the BBC giving focus to Handel as one of last year’s four Composers of the Year to mark the 250 year anniversary of his death, nothing was heard of Belshazzar despite its following the Messiah as a large scale successful work, deemed by Handel himself to be worthy of revival for his 1750-51 London season.

The libretto by Jennens underwent some changes and it is assumed that this production follows the revised format. Grove seems to have little of substance to say on the work : so this performance was greeted with extreme interest by those who attended a packed house for the single semi-staged performance at the Royal Northern College of Music by Manchester Camerata and Vocal Studies students of the College.

The work takes place in the Middle East around 540BC when the Persians decide to free Jews imprisoned by the Babylonian King Belshazzar. Helped by a Babylonian defector, Gobrias, they plan to drain the River Euphrates to provide an easy path into the city by their army. They chose a time of true weakness for the event, when Belshazzar and his citizens are drunkenly carefree whilst celebrating a feast. Three words mysteriously appear written on a wall and the prisoner Daniel is sent for by the King to interpret. They say, ‘Belshazzar shall fall’. The Persians then invade yet spare King Belshazzar’s mother, Nitocris: to her Cyrus promises to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The work ends with the Israelites celebrating their freedom.

Fleur Bray (Queen Nitocris) opens with a long and difficult solo prologue to ‘set the scene’ and this she brought off well. Her elegant soprano voice carried across the large orchestra without difficulty and she showed strength when communicating with her son Belshazzar in the second part. Sipho Fubesi has an excellent stage presence and carried the right amount of sloppy, carefree ambivalence to provide a vivid portrayal of King Belshazzar and bring comedy (much lacking in oratorio, sadly) that was much appreciated by the audience. The conspirators, light mezzo Helen Sherman (Cyrus) and bass baritone Louis Hurst (Gobrias) showed conviction in their roles in plotting the downfall of Babylon. Helen’s diction was outstanding and she clearly won the audience’s praise as a result. In fact the majority of soloists made the helpfully provided surtitles redundant and this is to the credit of the college’s training. Gobrias was appropriately well cast, his rich resonant timbre adding weight to the part. He also used the stage area well despite the lack of stage items to engage with and came across convincinglt. Counter-tenor Robin Blaze (Daniel) played his role thoughtfully, with soaring legato and purity of tone to match the innocence of wrongful imprisonment of his Israelite character. Peter Kelly (Arioch) gave good fleeting support during his appearance in the second part.

Nicholas Kraemer had his enthusiastic direction of the oratorio from the keyboard firmly under control and Handel’s music was carried at an energetic pace. The string and wind playing by Manchester Camerata was precise and displayed sensitivity to dynamics: an attempt at period correctness was provided by a continuo harpsichord and theorbo (lute). Accurate lighting cues with well focused lighting of the acting areas added to the presentation.

I thought the video effects worked generally well and there were moments of fine artistic interpretation. However, transition of images might have benefitted by slower cross-fades and where live camerawork was used, it would have made sense perhaps to carry it through a complete sequence/section/or chapter. I particularly liked the mimed intermingling of silhouetted crowds and the fact that the castle walls in the prologue were shown in black and white. Although the project was a year in gestation, the production was pulled together in one brief week. This points to the superb professionalism of all those involved, with good blocking and rehearsing, to enable such a polished presentation. Well done everybody!

Clearly this was a difficult work to stage, yet Bethan Rhys Williams‘ plan worked nicely and the production was never static. An obliquely arranged choir with the voices effectively ‘scrambled’ left a large acting area where the soloists could roam freely and make use of choice property items. The chorus prevented monotony by coming downstage at times to provide fresh groupings. Their training under chorus director Eduardo Portal, was excellent: the balance of voices was good, with clear high notes from the women and warm resonant notes from the men. The idea of providing projected images, video clips and live cctv of the performers in action was also excellent and offered an extra dimension of interest.

Raymond J Walker