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Handel: Belshazzar (Tarver, Joshua, Mehta/Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin/Rene Jacobs) [Blu-ray]  [Region Free]
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Handel's Belshazzar at the Aix Festival was imported from the Staatsoper Berlin. Berlin had built a huge, magnificent production and imported English and American opera singers, including star-turn countertenor Bejun Mehta. Add to this a superb local Baroque instrumental ensemble and an accomplished vocal ensemble, not to mention the world-renowned early music conductor, René Jacobs: and voilà, an operatic hit. Christophe Nel, a well-respected director in progressive German opera houses teamed up with famed Swiss minimalist set designer Roland Aeschlimann and costume designer Bettina Walter to create a production which respected the supposed austerity of oratorio. This experienced team brought Handel's not-so-high drama and philosophic tragedy to almost operatic dramatic standards as the Persian prince Cyrus overran the dissolute Babylonians and freed the captive Jews.
The Persian prince Cyrus, was sumptuously sung in heroic stances by Bejun Mehta; Rosemary Joshua, Belshazzar's mother Nitocris, sang in convincingly Handelian terms, and convincingly portrayed a religious zealot troubled by her wayward son. Most beautiful too was the singing of Neal Davies as the Syrian Gobrias, whose son had been killed by the dissolute emperor Belshazzar, a role also well sung and broadly characterised by American tenor, Kenneth Tarver. The star of the show was the RIAS-Kammerchor, able to personify Babylonians or Jews at the drop of a hat, singing magnificently. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin again proved itself a world-class chamber ensemble." --musicwebinternational
Top Customer Reviews
As a 'Lover' of Handel and owner of some of His most notable Oratorios (among other great Works), I couldn't miss "Belshazzar" not only because of the consistency and timeliness of the subject but also the specificity of 'Mise-en Scéne', Scenography and above all, the superb Performing of RIAS Kammerchor!
We are before a Prophecy announcing the fall of an Empire (Babylon) ruled by a Symbol of Corruption and Iniquity (Belshazzar) who even dares to defy Sacred Religious Values, offending the Moral and the Souls of His People, His own Mother the Queen Nitocris and his strong opponent Cyrus Prince of Persia.
The Action is Dramatic and Intense, and beyond the Elements of the Choir representing the People of Babylon there are three important Figures to consider: Nitocris the Queen ( Soprano Rosemary Joshua ), Cyrus Prince of Persia ( Alto Bejun Metha ) and Daniel the Prophet ( Mezzo Kristina Hammarstrom ).
he Role of Belshazzar by Kenneth Tarver is not very strong! The Acting is positive his expressive eyes and body language were able to transmit Madness and Evilness but the weak Voice and unstable Singing lead me to the definition of 'Acceptable'...
Even this detail was not enough to spoil the quality of this interesting version!
A Spectacle with remarkable Performances and a brilliant Direction of René Jacobs.
A gratifying view of the correct and beautiful costumes showing respect for Ancient Times ( not very common in modern Scenography ) and a purchase...not to regret!
The plot is not overly complicated for a three-act, almost three-hour oratorio, but there is a certain amount of dramatic ground to cover, which means that there is more opera seria-like recitative in Belshazzar, and consequently, it may not be always quite as musical and melodious as later Handel oratorios. The true impact of the oratorio however is on a dramatic level and in the piece as a whole. It's staged here for the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008 by Christof Nel in a manner that doesn't set any modern agenda or updated interpretation of the work, letting the dramatic action be dictated by the words of the libretto.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program)
And Bejun Mehta singing "Destructive war, thy limits know" ... O my Tetragrammaton, this is goosebump city. No one has ever done it so well! The musical performance here would be a 5-star slam dunk. I wish they would have contented themselves with an audio CD. I have very few quibbles concerning the performance, and those quibbles would not change the 5 star rating.
However, they had to turn it into a visual production, and so, they have to be prepared for comments on that. Please keep in mind Belshazzar was written as an oratorio, not meant to be costumed or staged. I don't have any philosophical problem with staging it, and I don't think Handel would have minded, so the low rating is not based simply on the fact that it was staged.
It has been treated here to a mild Eurotrash approach, that is using elements not of the period depicted, or any period Handel may have known about including possibly even his own. The costumes are a hodgepodge that range from ancient Middle East, up to nondescript modern-day work clothes. Well, I don't so much mind that--I may have knocked off a star for depicting people in modern clothes as members of an army, all brandishing sabres. And some of the ancient costumes were slightly cartoony. For example, the king's crown looked like it came out of a comic strip. Well, I could have included that in the removal of one star.
What kills it for me is that there is no "writing on the wall". This biblical story is the source for the saying, "the writing is on the wall". The bad guys invade the temple and commence a drunken revelry using the temple's sacred vessels as booze snifters. Then according to the book of Daniel, a disembodied hand appears and begins writing unknown characters on the wall. The king sees this in his drunken stupor and is terrified; he calls in his scholars, magicians, etc. who are unable to interpret the meaning. Finally the prophet Daniel is called and he is able to interpret them. The message is that the king had better kiss his anatomy goodbye this evening, etc.
Now, whether one accepts the bible or not ... the point is, that is the source document of this particular oratorio. And it is hardcoded into the libretto of this particular oratorio. So if one is going to perform this particular oratorio, one ought to follow the libretto, for the same reason as one ought to play an E natural on the oboe, rather than an E flat on the ophicleide, if the score calls for it.
Don't you think that is reasonable and expectable?
OK, so in this version, when they are having their drunken revelry, the king is not affrighted by the (real or imagined) disembodied hand on the wall. What is depicted is an effigy of the king being lowered onto the stage by a rope, a mannequin or dummy representing the dead king, deposited on the stage where all can see. And I suppose the king sees the strange characters on the effigy's body or robe. It is not all clear what is happening, although I was playing close attention. And when he calls in the magicians to read the writing (and yes he asks them specifically to read the writing, per the text), they look down at the effigy and state they cannot read them. And it continues etc.
So as I say the music and musical performance is glorious; visually it does have a mild but mostly inoffensive Eurotrash staging; but in a key scene it departs significantly from the source document (Handel's libretto) and the ancient source on which the source document was based (the book of Daniel). It doesn't make sense as to WHY it would do that, and I would be open and receptive to a reasonable explanation. So although I love the music and performance, it is an irritating video experience. Two stars = I don't like it. Sorry!
In Belshazzar it all comes together. It's a Handel music drama, and it's a marvel. Glorious music. Good drama. Jacobs and his troop do a superb job. The production is minimal but quite effective. It furthers the plot rather than going against it as so many productions do todaty. No trenchcoats.
If you like Handel you must see this production. And if you think that Italian baroque is not your cup of tea, you will still be enchanted with Berlshazzar. There are no extras but the included booklet is very good.
I am not so happy with the soloists but I'd like to say a few words about the libretto. It was put together by Charles Jennens (who also did Saul and Messiah) from chapter five of the Book of Daniel. Now the old testatment is not an unbiased history of events but an exercise in propaganda; by jews, for jews and emphasizing the jewish concept of a God, called the great, the one and the only etc. etc. Mr. Jennens adds texts to the Danial text to add more propaganda from Jeremiah and Isaiah. This was to emphasize the literal truths of biblical texts in what at the time was called the Deist contoversy. Thus the libretto was formed as much for political reasons as much as story telling. Handel letters indicatee his displeasure with some of this and some of the text was pared down owing to the length of the work (almost three hours). I think it best just to follow the basic story and listen to the "devine" music. The longest part for soloist is that of the Queen Nitocris. Her monologue opens the work and at various times she enters in again with comments and a soliloquy. It was sung here adequately by Rosemary Joshua. She is not an opera singer and one can only imagine what a real Handelean opera singer could have done with this or the other solo parts. The trouble is that they are not actors with adequate vocal heft to convey the emotion that is called for in an opera. This is true for the Cyrus of Bejun Mehta. He has great agility and vocal prowess for choral works but just doesn't have the depth for opera. Similarly the Gobrias of Neal Davies never came alive. The Daniel of Kristina Hammarstrom was well done and believable. Though he doesn't really have much to sing, Belshazzar as done by Kenneth Tarver was operatic if not yet mature. But no matter. This is a choral masterpiece and worth many a hearing.
It's a dark, leering, perverse sort of staging. The singers writhe, scuttle, and grimace to the point where, to my ears, their vocal arts are compromised. The emphasis is on the sordid decadence of the Babylonian court of King Belshazzar, rather than on the might and justice of the Lord worshipped by the prophet Daniel and the Jews in their Babylonian Captivity. Where, I think, Handel intended awe and dignity, the staging opts for hysterical depravity. If 'awe and dignity' are not stage-worthy, then this oratorio should not be staged operatically.
But the staging isn't close to the only problem. The singing of the soloists really isn't very good. The least appealing is Rosemary Joshua, in the role of Belshazzar's anxious mother Notocris. Oddly, Nitocris has the longest and most demanding arias of the work, including the very first. Ms Joshua has woefully unmatched registers, low/middle/high, in her voice and jounces from one timbre to another with little control. She also sings out of tune a great part of the time. Neither her voice nor her technique is adequate for this role. Neal Davies, in the small role of Gobrias, is equally inadequate, coarse and out of tune. Kristina Hammarström is more in control of timbre and tuning in the role of Daniel, but she hardly brings any sort of expressive affect to her arias. Countertenor Bejun Mehta sings the role of Cyrus with clearly well-developed technique, but his voice is not imposing enough to seem congruent with the character he portrays. The demands of theatricality -- of all that writhing and grimacing -- truly compromise the vocal artistry of Hammarström and Mehta; they'd be far more listenable in a concert presentation.
Kenneth Tarver, as Belshazzar, has the most acting to do in this drama -- the most grimacing and scuttling, that is. His Belshazzar is plainly bug-eyed mad rather than merely overweeningly proud and disdainful of the Jewish God. There isn't much righteousness to be found in chastising such an obvious fool. Tarver's voice is pleasant but, to my ears, immature in technique. Not ready for the big time.
Since this was composed as an oratorio, roughly in the musical vocabulary of "The Messiah", it's not surprising that much of the music is assigned to a chorus, and it was patently not easy for stage director Christof Nel to dispose that chorus on his abstract set. The choristers sometimes represent the captive Jews, sometimes the Babylonian revelers of Belshazzar's court, and sometimes the soldiers of Cyrus. To the credit of the RIAS Kammerchor, the choristers manage to render these figures convincingly, and to sing decently at the same time. Nevertheless, none of the thrift-store costuming or stagey blocking really added, in my mind, to the impact of the music.
"Belshazzar" has not been one of Handel's perennial hits. In fact, the music is problematical. It's highly contrapuntal, to the point of sounding labored and overwrought at times. And the libretto, by Charles Jennens, is atrocious doggerel, simultaneously precious and pompous. Frankly, I would rather have heard the oratorio sung in Esperanto or Tzotzil. Conductor Rene Jacobs certainly knows his stuff. It would be unfair to blame him for the failings of this production, unless it was his misguided impulse to stage "Belshazzar" as an opera.
The soloists are superb. Rosemary Joshua, a Welsh soprano who has made a name for herself in Handel and Mozart, shines as Belshazzar's mother Nitocris, who foresees that her son's degenerate empire will fall, like others before it. Kristina Hammarstrom, a young Swedish alto, delivers a moving portrayal of Daniel, the Hebrew prophet who translates the handwriting on the wall that confirms Belshazzar's doom. Bejun Mehta, one of the best contemporary counter-tenors, is Cyrus, the Persian prince who is God's instrument in delivering the Hebrews from their Babylonian captivity. Kenneth Tarver, an American tenor, effectively characterizes the dissolute Belshazzar, king of Babylon.
"The star of the show," says musicwebinternational, is the RIAS-Kammerchor, "able to personify Babylonians or Jews at the drop of a hat, singing magnificently. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin again [proves] itself a world-class chamber ensemble."
Unlike another reviewer, I experienced no problems whatever playing this disc on my Sony Blu-ray player (S570). Note: I purchased my Blu-Ray disc from Amazon.uk, where it was available in late May.
Ruth Smith writes, "Belshazzar's political maturity is unique among Handel's biblical dramas. There is no nationalism, triumphalism, or vengeance; the hero's aim is bloodless conquest, peace, liberty, and good government; goodness is not the preserve of a single nation or race; generous, courageous, wise people of four different nations collaborate for the benefit of others; at the end all the participants except a wicked tyrant are alive, free and honorably treated, and captives are liberated and repatriated. Belshazzar continues to merit [Winton] Dean's description as a `work of supreme genius, whose relevance to our times seems to loom larger with every decade.'" (The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia)
A must for Handel lovers.
Addendum (October 1, 2011): David Vickers reviews the recording in this month's Gramophone. He praises the "sincere staging full of good things" and says that "most of the singers are superb." However, he pans Rene Jacobs for adding instruments, adding instrumental interludes, mannered continuo playing, and having important lines sung by groups of soloists. Vickers points are surely accurate, and Jacobs shouldn't fiddle with the score, but I suspect that most non-expert Handel lovers (like myself) will not find these things particularly off-putting.