Handel oratorios, indeed Handel in general, are something of a rarity in Oslo. Luckily, the Oslo International Church Music Festival seems at least to be trying to do something about the former, and Monday’s performance of Handel’s Belshazzar was the ninth in a series of Handel oratorios in the festival’s 16-year history. The performance, conducted by Ottavio Dantone with the Accademia Bizantina and the Norwegian Soloists' Choir, was a powerful reminder of why these works deserve more outings.
The Book of Daniel has long served a source of ample inspiration for composers, from Verdi’s Nabucco to Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge. Handel’s Belshazzar takes its plot from the fifth chapter, and tells the story of the eponymous king of Babylon’s hedonism and downfall. King Belshazzar refuses to heed the word of Daniel and bow down before Jehovah, and unlike his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar, he is killed for his transgressions. After his death, Cyrus, king of the Persians and the Medes takes over as king and lets the captive Jewish people go.
As Belshazzar’s mother Nitocris, Rosemary Joshua proved remarkable especially in the recitatives, getting every word across with crystalline diction. She imbued her opening prophecy with a sense of inevitable catastrophe, fully aware of the consequences of her son’s blaspheming, yet knowing all too well that she could do nothing about it. While she had some difficulty with the high florid passages in the undeniably tricky “The leafy honours of the field”, she truly excelled in the slower arias, showing off her bright, silvery middle register, and again her skill for conveying text. Thomas Walker’s high, rather nasal voice was perhaps not the most beautiful, but it was very well suited to portraying the maniacal king Belshazzar. His coloratura was clear, although he had a tendency to stray sharp in his high register, especially at the end of runs.
Stepping in for an indisposed Christophe Dumaux was the Italian countertenor Raffaele Pè. He seemed nervous at first, struggling to find his way through the music in his first few arias, but found his balance soon enough. He was at his best with the slower, prayer-like music, making the most out of the clarity and simplicity of his voice. He had more problems conjuring up the necessary fire for the faster, more agitated arias. His Cyrus was one of great religious conviction, yet he sadly did not convince as much when calling his army to battle. Even though the role of Gobrias is by far the shortest in the oratorio, Andreas Wolf impressed with a booming voice and impressively clear coloratura. In his first, scathingly sarcastic, aria “Behold the monstrous human beast”, he showed off both his considerable range and some very impressive ornaments in the da capo.
Delphine Galou’s voice may be slightly lacking in fullness, but the centred, dark timbre lent the voice a suitably androgynous quality for the role of Daniel. Especially impressive was her meaty lower register, at times sounding downright manly (and I mean that as a compliment!). Her characterisation of the prophet was, like Pè’s Cyrus, one of great religious conviction, although Daniel’s faith came across as more sincere. The ire Galou let wash over Walker’s Belshazzar, chastising him for blasphemy was frightening in its intensity, especially in “No, to thyself thy trifles be”. The following recitative was a little rushed, and I wished she would have taken a little more time with the pivotal “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” section.
While their sheer sonic beauty of the Norwegian Soloists' Choir is unquestionable – the a capella opening of “Recall, O king” was a master class in choral warmth and homogeneity – emotions other than generic sadness and joy were all too rarely featured. When having to convey the depravity of the Babylonians at Belshazzar feast, the Soloist Choir sounded more like very proper schoolchildren than drunken nobles. In Handel oratorios, the best tunes are often given to the heathen choruses, yet there was little relishing in these deliciously infectious melodies. Luckily, they fared considerably better in the more introvert, contrapuntal choruses of the Jews.
Ottavio Dantone led the Accademia Bizantina in a spirited performance of the oratorio, at times a little too spirited, with certain arias and recitatives given too little room to breathe. Still, the playing was very good throughout, with a sinewy lyricism in the slower arias and a determined agitation in the faster ones. The trumpet playing in the second and third acts was especially impressive, in both ends of the dynamic spectrum.
Monday’s performance of Belshazzar was a strong argument for one of Handel’s lesser-played oratorios, and I hope it won’t be long until it makes another appearance. The kings of Babylon may have fared considerably better had they spared Jehovah a thought now and again, but in doing so, they would have robbed us of so much glorious music now, more than two millennia later.
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