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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Belshazzar, oratorio in 3 acts (HWV 61)

Rosemary Joshua (Nitocris), soprano; Caitlin Hulcup (Cyrus), mezzo-soprano; Iestyn Davies (Daniel), alto; Allan Clayton (Belshazzar), Jean-Yves Ravoux (Arioch), tenor; Geoffroy Buffière (Messenger), Jonathan Lemalu (Gobrias), bass
Les Arts Florissants
Dir: William Christie

rec: Dec 19 - 21, 2012, Levallois-Perret, Conservatoire Maurice Ravel
Éditions Arts Florissants - AF.001 (3 CDs) (© 2013) (2.46'30")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translation: F
Cover & track-list

Since his arrival in England Handel had concentrated on the composition of Italian operas. His career as an opera composer lasted about 30 years, but came to an end in the early 1740s. Whether he completely abandoned the idea of writing operas again is unclear, but it seems that he felt that the genre of the English oratorio was a more likely way to earn success. That was especially the case after a successful series of performances of Messiah in Dublin. In the next years he used the opera-free period of Lent to perform oratorios in King's Theatre and Covent Garden Theatre. In 1744 and 1745 Handel presented two oratorios, one on a secular and one on a sacred subject. In 1744 these were Semele and Joseph and his brethren respectively, in 1745 Hercules and Belshazzar.

The latter oratorio was written in 1744 on a libretto from the pen of Charles Jennens, the author of the text of Messiah. He took the biblical story of the Babylonian King Belshazzar as his subject, and turned to the book of Daniel for his account of the events which lead to the King's downfall and the capture of his empire by the Persian King Cyrus. He put it into a historical context with the help of two sources: the Histories by Herodotus and Cyropaedia (The education of Cyrus) by Xenophon. From the former he took the character of Nitocris and made her a proselyte to the Jewish faith who urges her son Belshazzar to show respect for the God of the Jews and their religion and acts as an ally of the Jewish prophet Daniel. Jennens's portrayal of Cyrus as a modest ruler is based on the latter source, from which he also took the character of Gobrias. It was especially important to him to underline the accuracy of the prophesies about the coming of Cyrus and the liberation of the Jews under his rule as they are found in the prophesies of Isaiah and Jeremiah. That is expressed in the motto on the front page of the libretto for the first performance: "A heavy and unchangeable weight lies in holy words, and the fates follow the voice [that utters them]" (after Thebias by Publius Papinius Statius (c45-c96)).

The first performance didn't go as Handel had planned. The contralto Susannah Cibber should sing the role of Daniel, but she fell ill, and as Handel had not a singer of the same calibre at his disposal, he had to reallocate the roles which meant that some of them were transposed. He also had to apply some cuts and the first aria of Gobrias was rewritten. In the next performances he may have made some additional changes. In 1751 and 1758 Belshazzar was revived, and Handel took the opportunity to restore the roles to what he had originally in mind. However, these versions also include cuts and additions. As a result it is almost impossible to establish an Urtext version of Belshazzar. In this performance William Christie uses the version as intended by Handel in 1745 as his starting point. The material not used in that version was made available to him in order "to choose the most musically successful versions of arias and choruses and in the case of the recitatives, those that best serve the dramatic flow" (liner-notes by Pascal Duc).

Those with a more than average interest in Handel and his oratorios would probably like to know exactly what parts of the various versions have been used. They have to sort that out themselves, because the choices Christie made are not specified in the booklet. From a historical point of view the procedure followed here is rather unsatisfying as there is a realistic chance that the performance we hear does not correspond to any version performed in Handel's time. It would have been preferable to choose the version originally intended by Handel, with the additional material being assembled in an appendix.

Although Belshazzar has given this oratorio its title he only appears at the end of the first act, in this recording the beginning of CD 2. This role is perfectly embodied by Allan Clayton: he effectively conveys Belshazzar's bragging, but gives also a good impression of his fear and desperation when he sees a hand writing on the wall. Stylistically he is one of the best in this recording. Rosemary Joshua gives a good account of the various emotions of Nitocris, and that makes it all the more disappointing that her singing is spoiled by an incessant wide vibrato which also goes at the cost of the audibility of the text. Iestyn Davies is well cast as Daniel, who acts calmly but firmly and without fear, thanks to his rocklike faith in God. Caitlin Hulcup delivers a differentiated portrait of Cyrus: on the one hand the powerful king who brings the Babylonian empire on its knees, on the other hand the modest ruler who only wants to punish Belshazzar, but save the Babylonians, and who respects Nitocris, Daniel and the Jewish people. Jonathan Lemalu sings the relatively small role of Gobrias, and does so well. I don't quite like his voice, which I find rather rough and unpolished in the middle and low registers, but that is a matter of taste.

The choruses are among the highlights of this recording. They take various roles, for instance the Jewish people or Belshazzar and the guests on his feast. These come off perfectly. Not often the text is so strongly depicted in choruses as is the case here. The orchestra plays brilliantly and effectively illustrates the course of events.

Despite some shortcomings this is an impressive and captivating interpretation of one of Handel's most impressive and dramatic oratorios.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Allan Clayton
Iestyn Davies
Caitlin Hulcup
Jonathan Lemalu
Les Arts Florissants

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