Saved by the chorus

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

We’ve cried wolf with Handel. Ever since the modern trend began for staging the composer’s oratorios we’ve hailed each one in turn as the composer’s ‘most dramatic’. We’ve said it of Theodora, Saul, perhaps loudest (and most persuasively) of Jephtha. The trouble is that now, nearly 40 years since we last saw Belshazzar on an English stage, this magnificent drama of warring armies and nations, grieving parents and defiant children returns and we’ve spent all our superlatives. So you’ll just have to trust me when I say that it’s really quite good.

A narcissistic sybarite of a king rules over a land bloated with corruption, rife with factions. You’d have to try pretty hard to miss the resonances of Handel’s biblical drama, yet somehow director Daniel Slater does exactly that in an awkward contemporary staging that feels mired in the literal. Handel’s opera may flirt with the exotic east, but it’s only window-dressing. His Persians, Jews and Babylonians are ciphers for rivals closer to home, his opera an English cousin to Rembrandt’s famous painting of Belshazzar — more Bruges than Babylon.

But it’s another painting, Bruegel’s ‘The Tower of Babel’, that designer Robert Innes Hopkins here takes as inspiration. His budget Babel teeters rather than towers, a sort of panoptic Dalek looming over the action. Its apologetic, rickety grandeur sets the tone for a production that wants Old Testament impact but has far too many New Testament scruples. Acrobats tumble and cavort, choruses writhe and grope (then grope some more), armies stamp and brandish, but to what end? Seedy rather than erotic, camp rather than awe-inspiring — these are orgies by John Lewis, invasions by Thomas Cook.

It’s the same story, unfortunately, with the lovely sounds coming from Harry Christophers’ pit. The orchestra of The Sixteen play this briskly cut score idiomatically and stylishly, finding plenty of colour in Handel’s unusually spare orchestration that resists any overt exoticisms. But again and again they step back from the edge, smoothing over rather than drawing out the score’s deliberate jolts and jagged edges. The astonishing sequence as the writing magically appears on the wall, which takes us from rollicking drinking song to starkest unaccompanied recitative in moments, passes without that crucial sense of unmoored, all-bets-are-off terror.

The singing, too, feels under-dramatised. There’s nothing half-hearted about Robert Murray’s Belshazzar (though more cartoon villain than Handel’s wayward, impetuous boy), but his incandescent vocal risk–taking leaves both Christopher Ainslie’s rather grainy Cyrus and James Laing’s Jewish prophet Daniel in the shade. Neither offers enough vocal beauty or brilliance to persuade you that trading Babylonian indulgence for stricter laws is really a good deal. On opening night the usually peerless Claire Booth sounded ill and out of sorts, fighting valiantly but not always successfully through Nitocris’s demanding music, not helped by a bad wig and the distracting suggestion of a sexual relationship between the grieving Babylonian queen and the chilly Daniel.

But if this drama of flawed kings and leaders has a hero it’s the chorus — or rather choruses: the same singers must deliver Babylonian shouts and drinking songs, Jewish hymns and Persian battle cries. A mixed ensemble combining members of The Sixteen with the Grange’s own chorus made this look easy, raising hairs and stakes every time they opened their mouths. What a shame this production gives them so little to play for.

If it’s stagecraft you are after, then forget Handel and get your dose of political tragedy at Opera Holland Park this week, where Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera glints darkly brilliant in a new production by Rodula Gaitanou. Updating the action from the 1790s to the 1940s gives this atmospheric melodrama of silent schemings and unspoken emotions a film noir frisson.

There are hints of Rattigan and David Lean in this royal love triangle. Designer takis responds with handsome wood–panelled rooms (you never know who may be listening behind concealed doors) and Barbara Stanwyck fashions, including a delectably over-the-top ensemble for the clairvoyant Madame Arvidson, a wonderfully arachnid Rosalind Plowright.

The private tensions of public lives are meticulously laid bare in drama that zooms in for a devastating musical close-up in ‘Morro, ma prima in grazia’ — Amelia’s plea for a final moment with her young son before her death — before panning effortlessly out again for a spectacular, wide-screen conclusion at the masked ball. The climactic encounter between King Gustavo (Matteo Lippi) and Amelia (Anne Sophie Duprels) takes on new terrors in a sinister asylum setting, amping up the pervasive sense of threat that hangs heavy in Verdi’s orchestra throughout.

Musically it’s exemplary. Lippi glints golden ease and entitlement against Duprels’ worked, burnished copper. Alison Langer is an explosion of soprano sparks as the page Oscar, and Benjamin Bevan and John Savournin scheme ominously as conspirators Ribbing and Horn. Underpinning it all is Matthew Kofi Waldren’s restless orchestra, an unsettling, Hitchcockian engine for this stylish tragedy.

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