Handel’s Belshazzar in Toulouse

Handel, Belshazzar: Soloists, Berlin’s Akademie für Alte Musik, RIAS Kammerchor. Conductor: René Jacobs. Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse. 22.5.2011 (JMI)

Coproduction Théâtre du Capitole, Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, Festival d’Aix en Provence, Innsbruckner Festwochen der Alten Musik

Direction: Christof Nel (Original)
Christoph Von Bernuth (Revival)
Sets: Roland Aeschlimann
Costumes: Bettina Walter
Lighting: Olaf Freese(Original)
Mikael Tordjmann (Revival)


Belshazzar: Kenneth Tarver
Nitocris: Rosemary Joshua
Cyrus: Bejun Mehta
Daniel: Kristina Hammarström
Gobryas: Jonathan Lemalu

Picture Courtesy of Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse

One of the attractions of the current opera season at Toulouse was the performance of Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar, performed as scarcely as the music it contains is beautiful, in particular the chorales, which I consider among the best written by Handel. Belshazzar was premiered at the King’s Theatre Haymarket London in concert in 1745 and it belongs to the decade where Handel focused on oratorios, largely for financial reasons-economically precarious situations being as old as the business of music. The text of the oratorio is Charles Jennens’ and based on The Book of Daniel, narrating the conquest of Babylon by King Cyrus, who overthrew Belshazzar (or Balthazar), and freed the Jews from slavery.

In Toulouse the stage production was fraught with all the difficulties that the switch from oratorio to pure opera brings. The production is by Christof Nel, and premiered in June 2008 at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, and has since traveled to the Festivals of Aix en Provence and Innsbruck. Getting the static action to-literally-move on stage is difficult. The director must decide whether to ask for much suspension of disbelief to overcome the lack of action, or rather to move into the direction of a semi staged production. Obviously, the former is more complicated than the latter, and much more expensive. Not surprising, then, that Nel Chiristof offers a production more along the lines of a semi-staged version of the work.

Roland Aeschlimann’s sets are just a wall, smooth in some places, tiered in others, probably representing the walls of Babylon. It is before this wall where the action takes place and where the soloists and chorus sing their parts. The costumes are well suited in soft tones. There’s not a whole lot going on, but then there’s probably not a whole lot more that can be done with an oratorio like this.

Since its premiere in Berlin, this production of Belshazzar has had an exceptional trio of musical performers: René Jacobs, the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin and the RIAS Chamber Chorus. The musical performance was outstanding, especially in the second part, comprising acts II and III. René Jacobs is one of the great Baroque conductors of our age and he benefited from the exceptional collaboration of a great orchestra. The performance of the chorus, meanwhile, was almost supernatural. The 26 young singers offered an exceptional performance of rare quality that will be impossible to forget. Chapeau!

American tenor Kenneth Tarver was Belshazzar and a fine interpreter of the role. He is a light tenor, with a pleasant voice of somewhat reduced size, which isn’t a problem in this theatre or work. He was a very good actor on stage, sometimes almost a dancer, and he sang with gusto and conviction.

Welsh soprano Rosemary Joshua was an excellent Nitocris, the Queen, mother of Belshazzar, closer to the God of Israel than to Babylonians’s. She offered a pleasant voice, well handled and quite well suited to Handel’s florid style.

Vocally, the best part of the evening was the performance of countertenor Bejun Mehta as Cyrus, the real hero of the opera, because – with God’s help – he diverts the waters of Euphrates and conquers Babylon, releasing the Jews. I think he has become one of the very best singers in his field, with a faultless technique and an outstanding sensitivity.

Prophet Daniel was Swedish mezzo soprano Kristina Hammarström, whose performance was correct, without much relief. Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu completed the cast with a decent interpretation of Gobryas, Cyrus’s friend.

José MªIrurzun