BWW Review: BELSHAZZAR at Elder Hall, University Of Adelaide

BWW Review: BELSHAZZAR at Elder Hall, University Of AdelaideReviewed by Ewart Shaw, Saturday 11th November 2017.

That Adelaide has only now experienced Belshazzar, Handel's mighty oratorio of the fall of Babylon, is not really surprising. The oratorios of Handel are demanding, and Messiah, the only one in general circulation, is totally unrepresentative, except in one respect, from the others, which are generally Old Testament narratives pressed into service for contemporary political purposes.

That it happened at all is a tribute to the imagination of the management of the Adelaide Philharmonia Chorus, the work of their musical director, Aldis Sils, and the inestimable contribution of guest conductor, Graham Abbott.

Asked on 5EBI FM how the performance came about, Abbott said of the Adelaide Philharmonia, "I actually tied them down and wouldn't let them go till they said yes". At drinks, after last year's successful presentation of Handel's coronation anthems, the idea was mooted, and brought to an immensely successful climax on the stage of the Elder Hall.

In his preconcert talk, Abbott explained that he had wanted to perform the work for forty years, five years before his birth, and the way he and his ensemble surmounted the challenges of the work made all that commitment obvious and was rewarded by a very appreciative audience.

The prolix libretto, by the Reverend Charles Jennens, the compiler of the words for Messiah, deals with the overthrow of the libidinous Belshazzar by the noble King Cyrus. The bible story increases the tension by adding blasphemy into the mixture. At the height of a banquet, Belshazzar orders the sacred vessels of the Jerusalem temple to be brought so that he and his cronies can drink from them.

A hand appears and writes on the wall four prophetic words which only Daniel, a Jewish captive, can translate. "Mene mene tekel upharsin, you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and your kingdom will be given to the Medes and the Persians". That's where we get the expression, "the writing is on the wall", presaging disaster.

Jennens begins his version of the tale with a lengthy accompanied recitative for Nitocris, Queen Mother of Babylon, which begins "vain fluctuating state of human empire", and then describes the growth and then the failure of imperial ambition, when a bloated state is destroyed by ambition, perfidy and hate. Nitocris sees this all embodied in her son, but the message is general and has a contemporary relevance that will not have escaped the more perceptive and attentive members of the audience. Jennens assembled his narrative from classical sources as well as the Old Testament, and added details of his own to add levels of motive, especially in the character of Gobrias, a Babylonian warrior who hated Belshazzar for murdering his son and gives his allegiance, and a great deal of military support, to Cyrus. What becomes clear is that Cyrus's success is a gift from the Hebrew God, Jehovah, who has managed the campaign so that Cyrus will release the Jews from their captivity and send them rejoicing home to Jerusalem, where he will foot the bill for the rebuilding of the Temple.

The Libretto was not available on the night, but was projected onto a screen at the side of the stage.

That's the story, and Handel clothed it in glorious choruses, expressive and elaborate solos, and two magnificent duets. Jennens may have been verbose and self-important, but he could rise to match Handel's genius.

Now, to the night itself. Many of the attendees at the pre-concert talk, delivered by Graham Abbott with the same depth of knowledge and self-effacing humour, a hallmark of his approach to music, elected to stay in their seats till the overture, or in this case 'ouverture', so late-comers had a choice of sitting so close as to risk neck strain or, as I did, colonizing the balcony. The sound was clear and beautiful.

The chorus, meticulously prepared by Aldis Sils, sang with lusty confidence, as three separate Dramatic Forces, reverent Jews, partying Babylonians, and triumphant Persians. There was a good internal balance, and the fugal passages were delivered with strength, despite the fact that the tenor line was only eight singers, three of them female. If you, as a singer, have the extra bit on top that will put you in the tenor line of your local choir, please step up, you'll be welcomed. There might be drinks, and affectionate stuff.

If you recognize Belshazzar as the opera Handel couldn't stage, you recognize the fact that every soloist has the opportunity to inject more drama into their performance than your average Messiah.

Robbie Macfarlane has always, since his first days at the Elder Conservatorium, been known for his intense physicality and humour on stage, and he brought that to the title role, with an intuitive kinetic sense. The musical demands of the role were surmounted with ease, his coloratura singing impressive and powerful. Kate Macfarlane, as Nitocris, blended an equally powerful voice and stage presence. The Leafy Honours of the Field, written with complete disregard for common sense, was despatched with apparent ease. It's hard to tell if Handel wrote it as a punishment or reward for the original soprano.

How a sound so dark, so dramatic and convincing, pours with such generosity out of Sally Anne Russell is one of the joyful mysteries of Australian music. Of all the soloists, she alone had sung her role before, presenting a compelling portrait of the Persian King Cyrus, strong in battle and compassionate in victory. Handel wrote Cyrus and the prophet Daniel with female voices in mind. As with his operas, where so many kings and heroes were sung by castrati, it was the pitch of the voice that mattered to him. Here, the role of Daniel was given to Matthew Rutty, a countertenor in the modern sense, with a developed falsetto register. It's not the strongest sound, in that company, and production was inconsistent. He did bring a sense of eerie foreboding to his translation of the divine graffiti.

Jeremy Tatchell brought to the role of Gobrias a big sound. I've not heard him in this repertoire before. Maybe a career direction to explore.

Alexandra Cunningham and Chris Davies sang minor roles from the chorus, effectively.

I mentioned the two duets, as an example of Jennens's skill as a librettist. In the first, O Dearer Than My Life, Nitocris prays that her son will obey the god of the Hebrews, while he condemns her as a secret convert. The word 'remember', with two different emotional contexts, is passed between them. In the second duet, Nitocris submits to Cyrus, who raises her up and swears to replace her lost son with his own love. It was meltingly beautiful. After all the warlike choruses, Handel and Jennens chose to bring the evening to a close with a small scale and touching anthem in praise of God, a sincere and submissive touch.

Abbott's orchestra, led by Carolyn Lam, and enlivened with two clarino trumpets, was expressive and responsive. Josh van Konkelenberg was at the console of the Elder Hall Casavant organ with such authority, and Abbott combined harpsichord accompaniment with his confident and masterful control of his forces.

The evening was a wonderful thing, just wonderful, and there's Hercules to consider in terms of drama, and Semele for a lighter sexy adventure, and the forces are here. Yes, we could be a Wagner city, but how much better to be Handel's second home?

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