As a gift to the Messiahed-out, William Christie and his Arts Florissants offered Handel’s majestic oratorio on the Bible story which furnished our phrase ‘the writing on the wall’.
The libretto of ‘Belshazzar’ was by Charles Jennens, who also wrote the words for the ‘Messiah’: Handel had fallen out with that touchy country squire over his decision to premiere the ‘Messiah’ in Dublin rather than in London, and collaborating on ‘Belshazzar’ was their way of making it up.
This was conceived as an unstaged vocal work, but Christie says he would kill for the chance to stage it. And why not, since the plot is full of spectacle, as Jennens’s detailed stage directions indicate. Babylon is under siege from Cyrus and the Persians, who divert the river Euphrates to enter the city via the dried-up riverbed; the enslaved Jews watch Belshazzar’s nobles desecrating their sacred vessels at a feast, but the drunken revelry is brought to a shocked halt by a message of sanguinary doom on the wall. What more, apart from love-interest, could Hollywood ask?
One of the strengths of this performance lay in the way it capitalised on Handel’s musical scene-painting, which is at times almost cinematic. When, for example, the prophet Daniel interprets the writing on the wall, his tonality goes into free-fall, and since this Daniel was sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies, the effect was as spine-chilling as any staging could have been.
That moment segues into the oratorio’s most sublime aria, in which Belshazzar’s mother Nitocris pleads for him to repent: as sung by that distinguished Handelian Rosemary Joshua, with oboe, cello, and double bass tenderly underscoring her silvery soprano, the effect was desperately moving. But Handel’s musical dramaturgy is also quite systematic, with the three ethnic groups – Persians, Babylonians, and Jews – each getting their own distinct choral style.
Christie and his chorus and orchestra – notably the natural trumpets - were on top form; Jonathan Lemalu’s sound was too thin and unfocused to convince as the venerable Gobrias, and Caitlin Hulcup’s Cyrus needed more heft, but the other soloists were dazzling. Joshua’s singing had graceful authority, Allan Clayton brought all his comic skills (as well as his considerable vocal ones) to present the errant king in preposterous close-up, and Iestyn Davies’s performance was, as usual with that amazing singer, beautiful and compelling beyond words.