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HANDEL: Belshazzar – Allan Clayton, tenor (Belshazzar)/ Rosemary Joshua, sop. (Nitocris)/ Caitlin Hulcup, mezzo-sop. (Cyrus)/ Iestyn Davies, countertenor (Daniel)/ Les Arts Florissants/ William Christie – Les Arts Florissants – William Christie Editions (3 CDs)

HANDEL: Belshazzar, Oratorio in Three Acts – Allan Clayton, tenor (Belshazzar)/ Rosemary Joshua, sop. (Nitocris)/ Caitlin Hulcup, mezzo-sop. (Cyrus)/ Iestyn Davies, countertenor (Daniel)/ Jonathan Lemalu, bass-bar. (Gobrias)/ Les Arts Florissants/ William Christie – Les Arts Florissants – William Christie Editions (3 discs), 55:21, 68:13, 42:52 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

Written in 1745 for the King’s Theatre, Belshazzar represents the most ambitious new work produced in Handel’s campaign to present a season of English oratorio in the place where Italian opera had reigned supreme since before the composer’s first opera written for England, Rinaldo, premiered in 1711. Handel already had a portfolio of oratorios that could be performed there but needed new material, so he composed the secular oratorio: Hercules followed closely by Belshazzar, relying on his finest librettist, Charles Jennens, responsible for the words behind Israel in Egypt, Saul, and of course Messiah. Like Saul—and unlike the other two oratorios, which are chiefly narrative—Belshazzar is one of Handel’s most dramatic, indeed operatic oratorios. Again, like Saul (and Samson), the oratorio has a flawed central figure—in the case of King Belshazzar, deeply flawed. He’s a blasphemer and libertine who gets no eulogies as Saul and Samson do.

Martin Luther is supposed to have asked why the Devil should get all the best tunes. Belshazzar really doesn’t hog the solos in this oratorio, but neither does Jennens shy from making him the dominant figure in the work by virtue of his larger-than-life nastiness. He’s a great egotist, but an unctuous one. In one of the most telling scenes, Act 1, Scene 5, Jennens has Belshazzar trumpet his own munificence:

For you, my friends, the nobles of my court,
I have prepar’d a feast magnificent,
worthy of you…and me.

Handel, probably with encouragement from Jennens, has Belshazzar modestly pause before he  adds, “and me.” Such a self-effacing guy—or so he’d like you to believe. Tenor Allan Clayton delivers this recitative perfectly and manages to give Belshazzar the psychological roundedness that’s the hallmark of Handel’s finest characterizations, whether in opera or oratorio. In the same scene, not afraid to mix licentiousness with impiety, Belshazzar comes up with the festive idea of using the holy vessels taken from the Jewish Temple as drinking cups. Later, after the party goes south (in the famous handwriting-on-the-wall scene), he’s all diplomacy, first offering royal gifts to any of his sages who can interpret the ghostly writing and then, once they prove insufficient to the task, to Daniel. Belshazzar is his unctuous kingly self again, complimenting Daniel before promising him a purple robe, a gold chain, and a third of his kingdom.

Maybe I’m looking at matters from a modern perspective, but Daniel’s sanctimonious reaction—“such glitt’ring trash affects not me, / intent on greater matters still”—doesn’t win him any points with me. But long before the modern era, readers faulted John Milton’s Paradise Lost for portraying Satan as a  far more compelling character than Jesus. Then again, I think both Milton and Jennens (and Handel too) were sophisticated enough to understand that audiences can’t help but find a perverse attractiveness in a convincingly-drawn villain. However that may be, countertenor Iestyn Davies is a firm-voiced and confident Daniel throughout.

Though they’re more one-dimensional characters, Nitocris, Cyrus, and Gobrias emerge as well-defined in Jennens’ libretto. Nitocris, Belshazzar’s mother, balances maternal concern with a pious woman’s shock at her son’s sacrilege. From Gobrias, a Babylonian whose son fell victim to Belshazzar’s cruelty, there’s only contempt and revulsion for the king, which he expresses most eloquently in his aria “Behold the monstrous human beast.” Jonathan Lemalu’s dark bass captures his sulfurous hatred for Belshazzar. But Lemau’s voice has an unfortunate quaver that does no favors for his characterization generally.

The forthright, godly king of Persia, Cyrus, is a good and faithful soldier after the fashion of Kent in Shakespeare’s King Lear. He certainly isn’t as imposing a character as either Belshazzar or Gobrias, but he’s sympathetically portrayed and well sung by mezzo Caitlin Hulcup.

The always fine Rosemary Joshua is a convincing Queen Nitocris, who experiences fear, hope, and grief as her son plots his own downfall through the course of the opera. Joshua sets the stage emotionally in her important opening scene and develops the queen’s character in a carefully shaded performance, though her voice has a distracting tremor to it in the early pages, as if she’s trying a bit too hard to underscore Nitocris’ agitation.

The chorus—taxed with portraying grieving Jews, partying Babylonians, and triumphant Persians—is excellent under William Christie’s exacting direction, as is the orchestral playing, something I take for granted from Christie’s group. This powerful reading is a thoroughgoing success for Les Arts Florissants’ new proprietary label. It joins the other distinguished recordings of the work by Harnoncourt (Warner Classics) and Jacobs, whose version on Harmonia mundi DVD and Blu-ray (again, with Rosemary Joshua in the role of Nitrocis) turns the oratorio into a fully staged opera. Even if Jacobs’ conception doesn’t entirely work, it’s a version worth seeing and hearing. But for a recording of the work sans visuals, this new version, in resplendent modern sound, now takes pride of place.

—Lee Passarella

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