A clear home run for the Grange Festival. Since taking over the Grange Theatre in Hampshire in 2017 counter-tenor Michael Chance has encouraged superb productions of opera from the baroque period, and this year was the turn of Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar, never before professionally staged in this country.
The Biblical story is that Belshazzar was the king of Babylon, who drank from the sacred vessels that his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar had appropriated from Jerusalem when he destroyed Solomon’s temple and took the Israelites into Babylonian captivity in 587 BC. The story says that Belshazzar’s sacrilegious feasting was interrupted by writing on the wall, deciphered by the prophet Daniel to indicate that the king had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The Persians under Cyrus the Great then conquer the city.
In this version of the story, the king’s mother Nitocris is alarmed at the way her son is behaving and pleads with him to stop. She also feels an attraction to Daniel and in the great tradition of opera, personal romance, plus vengeance in the person of Gobrias who has defected to the Persians to avenge the death of his son by Belsahazzar, is combined with a story loosely based on Biblical tradition. As an oratorio, the fine choral singing performed under the direction of Harry Christophers, with his ensemble The Sixteen, formed a strong basis for the five principals.
Claire Booth was simply superb as Nitocris, exhibiting wonderful emotional expression, lovely singing, and a fine stage presence as the wise, but still beautiful dowager queen, mourning her husband at the start and well aware of the vanity of temporal things. Daniel’s attraction is more timeless, and he was strongly sung by the excellent counter-tenor James Laing, with Robert Murray delivering a highly characterful performance as the frightfully louche Belshazzar. As the vengeful Gobrias, Henry Waddington sang a powerfully convincing bass. His clever wheeze is to drain the Euphrates, so that Cyrus, sung by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie, dressed more like a guard than the most powerful king in the world, can enter Babylon on the river bed. An improbable story, but very well directed by Daniel Slater with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Peter Mumford that provides strong dichotomy between the Jews and the Babylonian court.
A focal point of the design is a multi-storeyed tower, like an artist’s impression of the Tower of Babel, which Biblical stories often associate with Babylon. This great city, which came to pre-eminence under King Hammurabi in the eighteenth century BC, was indeed taken into the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC, who then liberated the Hebrews, though Belshazzar had only been regent while his father Nabonidus was away, and was relieved him of his duties before the Persian invasion. The writing on the wall, however: mene mene tekel upharsin (counted counted weighed and divided) is a great story that forms an important part of this fine production.
Until July 6 — see details.