Opera Reviews
25 February 2024
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An excellent performance of a highly dramatic work

by Catriona Graham

Handel: Belshazzar
International Handel Festival Göttingen
14 May 2022

The story of Belshazzar and his feast is almost wasted on oratorio. It seems made for CGI yet, in Handel’s day, no such option was available. The effects had to be achieved by the word-painting of the libretto he had commissioned from Charles Jennings, the scoring for the orchestra and the singers.

The feast itself is only part of the oratorio, Jennings’ libretto fills in the backstory and outcome. Briefly, Belshazzar, having brought the Jews captive to Babylon, is plotting a feast at which he will use the sacred vessels from Jerusalem for wine. Meanwhile, Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, is plotting an attack on Babylon itself, using nifty water-engineering works. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, nothing in the performance by Concerto Köln and the NDR Vokalensemble, conducted by Vaclav Luks, at the Göttingen International Handel Festival. Stand-out was Jeanine de Bique as Belshazzar’s mother Nitocris, who advises him against annoying the god of the Jews, but when did any King pay heed to his mother. She has an impressive range of colour and tone – supple, even frothy when needed, at the top, and an almost contralto richness on demand in her lower register, plus everything in between. Some high passages are so smooth and feather light they seem effortless. And she aced it with a dress which matched the elegance of her singing.

Juan Sancho’s Belshazzar is well-pleased with himself, becoming convincingly drunk before shocked into sobriety by the writing on the wall. When he eventually calls in aid Daniel in the hope of an explanation, Raffaele Pe expounds Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin as if to an idiot child, and the acoustic of the renovated St-Johannis Kirche responds. Nitocris’s anguished response, Regard, O son, my flowing tears, is just beautiful.

Belshazzar’s nemesis Cyrus is sung by Mary Ellen Nesi. Dry those unavailing tears could have been taken the teensiest shade slower, as the words rather came out in a torrent, but her voice is rich and sonorous and conveys dignity and sense of purpose in contrast to Belshazzar’s hedonism. Gobryas is sung by Stephan MacLeod, his bass-baritone making a good contrast with all the high voices.

The NDR Vokalensemble is good, its dynamic range illustrated by the semi-chorus sound of Medes and Persians Why, faithless river, does thou leave and the full chorus passages on either side. The chorus of Babylonians Ye tutelar’ gods of our empire, look down, is jollily rustic, while the chorus of Jews is solemnly hymn-like.

In the end, of course, Belshazzar is slain during a Martial Symphony, and the final two songs are sung by Cyrus – it depends on the version whether it is given to Daniel or Cyrus, who thereby accepts the God of the Jews – with Nitocris joining him in the last, and the chorus coming in for the amen.

Luks takes it at a cracking pace, throwing himself at the music, and Concerto Köln take up the challenge, playing with style and verve  throughout.

Text © Catriona Graham
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