Monday 24 June 2019

Cycle of history: Daniel Slater's imaginative staging of Handel's Belshazzar at Grange Festival

Handel: Belshazzar - Robert Murray - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Handel: Belshazzar - Robert Murray - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Handel Belshazzar; Robert Murray, Claire Booth, Christopher Ainslie, James Laing, Henry Waddington, The Sixteen, dir: Daniel Slater, cond: Harry Christophers; The Grange Festival Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 June 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A vividly theatrical staging, with some coruscating performances, which solved a lot of the problems of putting oratorio on the stage

It is over 30 years since I last saw a staging of Handel's oratorio Belshazzar, when Charles Farncombe and the London Handel Society staged it at Sadler's Wells Theatre. It seems that the staging of Handel's Belshazzar at The Grange Festival (seen 22 June 2019) was the first fully professional one in the UK. Directed by Daniel Slater with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Peter Mumford, the performance formed part of The Sixteen's 40th anniversary celebrations and featured The Sixteen's choir (along with members of the festival's chorus) and orchestra conducted by Harry Christophers. Robert Murray was Belshazzar with Claire Booth as Nitocris, Christopher Ainslie as Cyrus, Henry Waddington as Gobrias and James Laing as Daniel.

Handel did not intend Belshazzar to be staged though the libretto by Charles Jennens was one of the most satisfyingly dramatic that Handel set. But this means that the dramaturgy takes not account of theatrical logistics (either from the Georgian theatre or contemporary theatre) so there are long complex choruses, and a moment when the chorus has to quickly change from being Persians to being Jews. Daniel Slater's solutions to these challenges were highly imaginative and, with Tim Claydon's movement, made the staging satisfyingly dramatic yet did not neglect musical values.

Robert Innes Hopkins' set started out with a fearsome wall with the hint of a tower behind, which was clearly inspired by Breughel's Tower of Babel but gave suggestions both of Broadcasting House and a mid-Century New York skyscraper. When the wall opened, the tower stood in an amphitheatre space (very sympathetic for the voices), and the tower rotated to reveal a gilded alcove with neo-Crace decoration which formed the location of Belshazzar's court.

Handel: Belshazzar - Claire Booth, Robert Murray - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Handel: Belshazzar - Claire Booth, Robert Murray - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Costumes were roughly mid-20th century, the Jews in Black with prayer shawls, the Babylonians in lurid Hawaiian shirts with much naked flesh. Slater's dramaturgy took its hints from Nitocris' remarkable opening scena (which Handel probably never heard in full) where she contemplates the cyclical fate of empires. So at the opening we saw Nitocris (Claire Booth) mourning her recently deceased husband and at the end, as the Jews leave Babylon for their homeland, Nitocris is back in mourning for her son, Belshazzar (Robert Murray) and Cyrus (Christopher Ainslie) has replaced Belshazzar as the decadent sovereign. To make this work Slater adjusted the dramaturgy so that the final rapturous duet was between Claire Booth's Nitocris and James Laing's Daniel (rather than Cyrus). Which made dramatic sense with the way Slater developed Daniel and Nitocris' relationship, hinting at a romantic liaison.

Robert Murray made a wonderfully outrageous Belshazzar, conspicuous in his consumption, omniverous in his sexual tastes and generally self-indulgent. Murray seemed to be having the time of his life, creating a vivid portrait of the self-centred monarch, yet he also gave us some vibrantly engaging Handel singing too. Murray's remarkable portrait of Belshazzar was complemented by Claire Booth's intense and pained Nitocris, very much the conscience of the piece. her opening scena was both arresting and powerfully moving, and throughout we sensed Nitocris being torn between her thoughtful adoption of Jewish ideas, her motherly regard for her son and her relationship with Daniel (James Laing). It was a portrayal which really anchored the drama of the piece.

Handel: Belshazzar - Henry Waddington, Christopher Ainslie - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Handel: Belshazzar - Henry Waddington, Christopher Ainslie - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Christopher Anslie's Cyrus was fascinatingly self-regarding and perhaps a little deluded. His opening scene, describing his dream, was almost prophetic and he clearly lived in his own world, anchored by Henry Waddington's down to earth Gobrias. James Laing's Daniel was no so much mystical as ascetic and rather severely intense, learned yet clearly tempted by his relationship with Nitocris. Laing's account of Daniel's opening aria brought out the character's thoughtful intensity and whilst the later musical elements of the role never quite repeat that peak, Laing's focused character kept Daniel in the fore-front of the drama. The role of Gobrias is small but important, and Henry Waddington was moving in the aria about the death of his son, yet also provided a firm anchor in his relationship with Christopher Ainslie's Cyrus.

The scene of the writing on the wall was done with simple theatricality; Robert Murray's Belshazzar initially saw the writing above the heads of the audience (with a vividly dramatic performance from Murray and some spine-tingling moments in the orchestra), and then wrote the words himself on the walls. Laing made Daniel's interpretation a highly physical prophetic moments (prophecy was something that Jennens was keen on).

Handel did not intend the complex choruses (some for double chorus) to be staged, the twenty six members of The Sixteen and members of the Grange Festival ensemble entered with a will into the sheer physicality of Slater's staging whether as highly controlled Jews, military Persians or self-indulgent Babylonians. The Babylonian scenes, complete with acrobats (Haylee Ann, Craig Dagostino, Felipe Reyes) verged on the orgiastic but Tim Claydon's stylised movement kept them visually satisfying whilst never, quite, degenerating into embarrassing theatrical orgy. Vocally the ensemble was brilliant, characterising the three groups and producing some dazzling theatrical moments. There were a couple of times when the complexity of the staging interfered with ensemble, but overall this was a superbly rendered dramatic and theatrical account of the oratorio.

Handel: Belshazzar - James Laing - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Handel: Belshazzar - James Laing - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
In the pit, Harry Christophers conducted with masterly control, keeping his disparate forces in check and, with the orchestra, providing stylish support for the soloists as well as some crisply vivid theatrical moments in the instrumental interludes. Inevitably the work was substantially cut, we had around 140 minutes of music (my recording of it, conducted by Trevor Pinnock, comes in at 170 minutes.

I have to confess that I have not always enjoyed stagings of Handel's oratorios and find the idea of the drama of the mind appealing. Yet, Slater's rendering solved many of the problems in imaginative fashion whilst adding layers of interesting complexity to the work, helped by some coruscating performances from this finely balanced ensemble.

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