Belshazzar review – Murray shines as Handel's vainglorious hero

Grange Festival, Hampshire
Daniel Slater’s lively staging of the 1744 oratorio is sung with outstanding commitment and attention to detail, with Robert Murray an exceptional lead

A collaboration between the Grange festival and the choir and orchestra of the Sixteen, Handel’s 1744 oratorio Belshazzar is being given its first UK staging in more than 30 years in a production by Daniel Slater conducted by Harry Christophers. A work of considerable grandeur, it weaves together material from the biblical Book of Daniel and the Greek historian Herodotus. It depicts the destruction of the Babylonian empire by Persian king Cyrus the Great, and the subsequent release of Babylon’s captive Jewish population, who are forced into exile by ruler Belshazzar’s grandfather Nebuchadnezzar.

Slater draws on both ancient and modern imagery. Babylon, impressively designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, is dominated by an immense ziggurat reminiscent both of Breughel’s Tower of Babel and a skyscraper. Robert Murray’s bisexual Belshazzar presides over decadent, transgressive orgies, while Cyrus (Christopher Ainslie) and his general Gobrias (Henry Waddington) drill their troops in rigid formation outside the city walls. The Jews, in sober black, are refugees led by James Laing’s visionary Daniel. Some of Slater’s interventions are questionable, however. We first find Claire Booth’s Nitocris mourning her late husband beside his coffin, which adds an element of confusion, since he is never mentioned in the libretto. Later, we discover that Nitocris and Daniel have become lovers, a contentious twist, as it deeply compromises his integrity.

Claire Booth as Nitocris, with the Sixteen and the Grange Festival Choruses Handel’s Belshazzar
Claire Booth as Nitocris, with the Sixteen and the Grange Festival Choruses in Handel’s Belshazzar Photograph: Simon Annand

Murray, in one of his finest performances to date, makes an exceptional Belshazzar, superbly sung, attractive yet cowardly, unthinking and vainglorious. Ainslie’s bravura contrasts with Laing’s more introverted refinement, and Waddington is genuinely tragic as Gobrias, grieving for his son, whom Belshazzar has murdered. Booth took a while to settle on opening night, but came into her own in the second half in the almost Freudian duet with Ainslie, in which he offers himself as a substitute son after Belshazzar’s death. The work, however, is as much about the chorus as the principals, and the combined forces of the Choir of the Sixteen and the Grange Festival Chorus sing with outstanding commitment and attention to detail. It’s finely conducted by Christophers, too.

• At the Grange festival, Hampshire, until 6 July.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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