Handel: Belshazzar

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Belshazzar
PERFORMER: Kenneth Tarver, Rosemary Joshua, Bejun Mehta, Kristina Hammarström, Neal Davies; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; RIAS Kammerchor/ René Jacobs; dir. Christof Nel (Aix-en-Provence, 2008)
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: HMD 9909028.29 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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German director Christof Nel’s staging of Handel’s oratorio looks like a childish affair at first sight. There’s an almost cartoonish quality to Bettina Walter’s costumes – Kenneth Tarver’s half-mad tyrant Belshazzar wanders around with a grotesque pointy crown, often carrying an axe, and many of the everyday clothes and military uniforms worn by the Old Testament characters and their attendant choruses of Jews, Babylonians and Persians look as if they have been plucked hastily from the costumier’s racks.

But that belies the seriousness and intensity of much of Nel’s direction, which takes place in Roland Aeschlimann’s stark setting with raised seating behind the action, almost like an amphitheatre. The overall effect is dark, even in the sharper Blu-ray edition, but the dramatic essence of the story of Belshazzar’s feast and the writing on the wall comes over in a striking semi-expressionist fashion.

There’s a strong set of central performances. Though Tarver is encouraged to go over the top as Nel’s bisexual hedonist villain, his bright and brilliant tenor is purposefully deployed. Many of the other performances are also vocally accomplished as well as diligently acted. As Belshazzar’s mother Nitocris, who warns him of God’s wrath to come, soprano Rosemary Joshua supplies sobriety and maternal concern on a grand scale. As Belshazzar’s nemesis, countertenor Bejun Mehta’s Persian King Cyrus is immaculately sung and powerfully acted and mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström’s prophet Daniel is a noble creation.

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Conductor René Jacobs proves a consistently lively presence in the pit, drawing excellent work from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the RIAS Kammerchor. Oddly, there are only ten cue-points in either format, making it hard to find individual highlights. George Hall