Excessive feast of an over-production: Handel’s Belshazzar in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Handel, Belshazzar: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Orchestra La Scintilla / Laurence Cummings (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich, 3.11.2019. (JR)

Handel, Belshazzar (c) Herwig Prammer

Director – Sebastian Baumgarten
Set – Barbara Steiner
Costumes – Christina Schmitt
Lighting – Elfried Roller
Video-Design – Hannah Dörr
Video Assistant – Paul Rohlfs
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn
Chorus – Janko Kastelic
Choreography – Thomas Wilhelm

Belshazzar – Maura Peter
Gobrias – Evan Hughes
Nitrocris – Layla Claire
Cyrus – Jakob Józef Orliński
Daniel – Tuva Semmingsen
Three Wise Men – Thomas Erlank, Oleg Davydov, Katia Ledoux
Soloists – Lina Dambrauskaité, Justyna Bluj, Katia Ledoux, Thomas Erlank, Oleg Davydov, Eleanor Paunovic, Bernadeta Sonnleitner

Handel’s Belshazzar is an oratorio based on the biblical account of the fall of Babylon at the hands of Cyrus the Great and the subsequent freeing of the Jews, as found in the Book of Daniel. Composed in 1744, the oratorio fell into neglect after the composer’s death, despite containing some fine music; the first performance (with late substitutions) had been a flop; it was only performed six times in Handel’s lifetime. Nowadays there are occasional concert performances and the odd staging as an opera. This staging was distinctly odd.

Sebastian Baumgarten (who directed a puzzling Tannhäuser at Bayreuth a few years ago and faced much booing) has an excess of ideas in his modern production, at the expense of the music. More is less. The set is based on a large black wall and a palm tree. A huge video screen or animated projection forms a backdrop (usually of bombed inner cities), occasionally a foreground. A roving cameraman films much of the proceedings, especially when preparations are being made for battle; the cameraman focusses on a model of the city, complete with model cars and people, as the attack nears. At one point the cameraman lingers on two miniature models having sex. There are photos of the Americans storming across the desert in their tanks, no doubt on their way to invade Baghdad. Belshazzar is dressed to look like a cross between Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. The writing on the wall (‘Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’) appears not on a wall, but on Belshazzar’s arm, an underwhelming moment. The final scene is accompanied by video projections of natural disasters, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires and the cosmos. Costumes were all over the place, a complete ragbag: the Jews in black T-shirts with lurid green menorahs on the back and pictures of prominent Jews on the front: I think I spotted Einstein, Karl Marx, Leonard Bernstein, Anne Frank, Ben Gurion and Barbra Streisand. Some singers wore black hats, even including some women. The Babylonians looked like they had trawled through the costume department and allowed to choose whatever they wanted to wear, as long as it was gaudy. There is much drunkenness as the Babylonian empire descends into decadence. One of the main Babylonians resembled Caliban from The Tempest. The Persians were in shiny black suits and dresses. The Euphrates was depicted by the copious use of dry ice. There were model black jet fighters as the battle for Babylon began. To cap it all, Cyrus entered Babylon on the back of a huge, impressive leopard (Daniel does make reference to a leopard losing its spots at the end of Act II). The leopard moves its mouth and tail; it’s turned round so we can see the inner workings, two men pedalling furiously inside the beast. There were far too many clichés, too little British humour, simply too many ideas. It was hard work watching, some closed their eyes, a fellow critic at the interval simply mopped his brow. I expected a welter of booing at the final curtain, but on the opening night the director’s fan club were there en masse and ready to drown any nascent disapproval. Later performances may not be so fortunate.

The singers were decent, even if none really shone out. Local tenor Mauro Peter enjoyed his drunken revelry and merry outbursts but his top notes were strained and rapid semi-quavers untidy. Californian bass Evan Hughes has a fine, dark, profound bass. Canadian Layla Claire was a popular Necrotis, with a forceful soprano but occasionally harsh top note; ‘Regard, o son, my flowing tears’ was sung with emotion.

Eagerly awaited was Polish counter-tenor Jakob Józef Orliński, singing Cyrus (normally nowadays sung by a mezzo). He took a while to settle but his rendition of ‘Destructive war, thy limits know’ had verve. His technical agility impressed throughout. There was however little radiance in the voice.

Norwegian contralto Tuva Semmingsen has a warm voice but had difficulty projecting it, especially when placed at the back of the stage. Her intonation and diction were however exemplary.

The chorus was excellent, no other word for it. They have such a dramatic narrative to sing, front stage and full voice. They mastered the very long and tricky final ‘amen’ with aplomb. I was also much taken by their first chorus ‘Behold, by Persia’s hero made’. The orchestra, too, played magnificently, and the harpsichord playing of Joan Boronat Sanz was especially fine. Conductor Laurence Cummings knows his Handel and bounced along keeping everyone, more or less, together. This is not top notch Handel, it is an uneven work – Act I drags, the music frankly rather dull – even Handel thought the work too long and scrapped some of it; the opera did, however, improve – at least musically speaking – after the interval.

John Rhodes

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