HANDEL: Belshazzar, Blu-ray (2011)
Performers: Kenneth Tarver (Belshazzar)/ Rosemary Joshua (Nitocris)/ Bejun Mehta (Cyrus)/ Kristina Hammarström (Daniel)/ Neil Davies (Gobrias)/ RIAS Chamber Choir/ Academy for Old Music Berlin/ Rene Jacobs
Producer: Don Kent
Studio: Harmonia mundi HMD 9809028 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]
Video: 16:9 Color 1080p HD
Audio: PCM Stereo, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Subtitles: German, English, French
Length: 2 hours 46 minutes
Though there is little evidence that Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar was ever intended for an operatic style staging, there are some staging directions found in the score that renders opinion on the subject curiously mixed. I can tell you this after watching Rene Jacobs’s moving and pointed performance—this staging does little for the work as a whole but also does little to harm it. As in all of Handel’s oratorios the chorus plays a major, if not overwhelming role, and the chorus cannot really represent dramatic activity very well, relegating the principal roles to rather declamatory renderings of the solo parts and making the chorus appear rather, well, Greek.
I do appreciate the additional color involved in such a setup, and the singing actors all do their roles as well as can be expected even though the genre is not suitably becoming in the way that a genuine opera role would be. So once you get beyond the obvious setbacks in this attempt at dramatization you do indeed settle down and pay attention that that which Handel most intended—his music—even though librettist Charles Jennens (of Messiah fame) had an especial say in the direction this piece took, which at the time had some political connotations as well.
Belshazzar is truly one of Handel’s richest and most vibrant musical scores, and this reading is fortunate that the voices selected are by and large more than up to the task. Though I am not particularly fond of countertenors, it has to be admitted that Bejun Mehta’s artistry is second to none, as he demonstrates in the role of Cyrus. Rosemary Joshua is another one who stands out in the recording with a voice that is so very direct and stunningly focused that one just sits and marvels. The whole thing is wonderfully recorded and nicely filmed even though, like I said earlier, the overall impression of the oratorio is not enhanced by dramatization. Nonetheless, I tune into videos primarily for the music as well—even in opera, and that is as it should be—and it is here where this video really excels.