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Joshua, Hulcup; Davies, Clayton, Lemalu; Les Arts Florissants, Christie. English texts with translations. Les Arts Florissants editions B00F0TQP8C (2)
William Christie approaches the imperial theme of Handel's dramatic oratorio Belshazzar with the launch of his own new media empire, featuring recordings, literary commissions and musical editions by Les Arts Florissants, the ensemble the harpsichordist/conductor founded in 1979. And this boxed set, with its nifty accordion CD sleeve, historical-fantasy essay by Jean Echenoz, comprehensive booklet and superb recording values reflects a level of taste we've come to expect from this venerable maestro.
In a similar move toward artistic control, Handel had taken over management and production at London's King's Theater in 1744, with an ambitious lineup of English works that for social, artistic and political reasons was not entirely successful. Yet that season's Belshazzar is a magnificent work, with Charles Jennens's libretto drawing from both the Histories of Herodotus and the biblical Book of Daniel. Bold characters and choral utterances from Babylonians, Jews, Medes and Persians enliven the dramatic story-line, which contrasts Belshazzar, the depraved ruler who cruelly desecrates his enemy's sacred vessels, with Cyrus, the God-endorsed leader who diverts the Euphrates river to conquer a city.
From his muscular, arresting reading of the overture, Christie's tempos are perfect throughout, and he elicits noble, resonant string tone that never turns squirrelly or edgy in fast passages. The superb chorus sings with fine accuracy and verve, filling the forthright lines with religious righteousness, whether mocking ("Behold, by Persia's hero made") or solemn ("By slow degrees the wrath of God to its meridian height ascends"). Christie's allegros maintain the necessary gravity, as in "Sing, all ye Heav'ns," and he encourages lovely ensemble trills and flowing, gently etched coloratura in "All empires upon God depend." In the central scene, the partying Babylonians sing out boisterously in "Ye tutelary gods of our empire, look down" but register urgent concern for their shocked king when handwriting suddenly appears, in eerie dripping sounds from the strings, on the wall. Hastily summoned priests enter to an instrumental sinfonia, with Christie revealing Handel's humorous portrayal of their hurry in relentless syncopated octaves that go nowhere. When these clownish experts can't make sense of the mysterious letters, Belshazzar's people collapse in grief ("O misery! O terror!").
For the most part, the solo singers could be more vivid in their presentations. In the bass role of Gobrias, an Assyrian nobleman whose son was murdered by Belshazzar, Jonathan Lemalu lacks a real connection to the character's pathos, though he sings with handsome tone. As the Persian hero Cyrus, Caitlyn Hulcup shows a smooth, buttery mezzo that is both flexible and focused, and she brings personality to the character's essential dignity in fine recitative singing.
Countertenor Iestyn Davies portrays the prophet Daniel with his customary elegant phrasing and musical sensitivity, elevating the character from a stock pious figure with his honorable rejection of reward ("No, to thyself thy trifles be") and an imaginative reading of the enigmatic handwriting, using striking vocal colors for a solemn, trance-like interpretation. A fluttery, uncontrolled vibrato mars Rosemary Joshua's Nitocris, and bad diction leaves Handel's phrases sounding limp and warbly. The soprano shows little awareness of the gorgeous oboe obbligato in "Regard, O son, my flowing tears" or of Davies's exemplary phrasing in their duet "O dearer than my life, forbear."
Belshazzar is one of Handel's few one-dimensional roles, with his easygoing triple-time dance-songs, but tenor Allan Clayton brings fine imagination to the king's impulsive plan to desecrate the vessels, with whispery tones indicating his volatile and shallow nature.
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