A cauldron of confusion

Sarah Batschelet, backtrack (05.11.2019)

Belshazzar, 03.11.2019, Zürich

George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar, which premiered in 1741 in London, has periodically been staged as an opera, as Sebastian Baumgarten has done here in Zurich. The work tells the story of the Babylonian patriarch who is committed to a life of excess and debauchery. His own reign is overthrown by the Persians, but a third party also plays a crucial role in the drama: the strictly pious Jews, whom the Babylonians hold in captivity, and whose sacred traditions Belshazzar mocks and abuses. It’s not until he sees “the writing on the wall” – in this production a tattoo which appears mysteriously on his forearm: “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” – that he changes his blasphemous ways. Nevertheless, he is slain for his misdeeds in the end, and the victorious Persian prince, Cyrus, frees the captive Jews so they can return to their homeland.

Handel’s score, set to a text by Charles Jennens, is nothing short of sublime, and terrifically rich in variation. Under the despotic Belshazzar, a whole slew of merrymakers sing rousing melodies, while, by contrast, the far darker music of the Jewish contingent is marked by a sense of dignity, even when the sanctity of the group's votive objects is violated. The Persians, victorious in the end, have the most tempered of the three roles, although the bronze-gold voice of an Assyrian noble, Gobrias (the tremendous bass-baritone Evan Hughes), made for one of the great vocal highlights of the production.

Another peak performance was that of Cyrus, the conquerer whose ultimate brief is to embrace rather than separate. Young Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński showed fine vocal agility and seeming ease as an actor; he was even able to impart a sense of unbiased compassion for the mother of his enemy, and his performance was met after the curtain with jubilation.

Under Laurence Cummings’ baton, Orchestra La Scintilla gave a stunning performance. In solo parts, Claudius Hermann’s rich and gutsy cello, Brian Feehan’s elegiacal theorbo and Dariusz Mizera’s strong double bass lent consummate grace and dynamism to the effervescent Baroque score. Under Janko Kostelic’s direction, the choir configurations, many of them athletic, also deserve high accolades.

As Belshazzar, Mauro Peter duly parodied the role of the hopeless drunk in Act 1 with uncontrolled gestures and brash obnoxiousness. Gobrias, a dismayed Assyrian nobleman, alerts others to his foibles: “Behold the monstrous human beast / wallowing in excessive feast!” But given the degree of exaggeration, the velvet of Peter’s fine tenor somewhat went under, and it wasn’t until later in the opera that he could showcase his sterling voice effectively. As the prophet Daniel, Tuva Semmingsen seemed shy and somewhat alienated from her pivotal role, and her performance was hampered by the fact that, even at volume, her voice hardly carried out into the hall. As the law-abiding, compassionate and concerned mother of the hero, Layla Claire sang a respectable Nitocris, but had little variation in her upper voice, and looked a tad too ingénue-like for her maternal role. What’s more, while no fault of her own, her showgirl costume and Cleopatra wig did her no visual favours.

Melodrama is a best friend of slapstick, but hardly of Handel’s. As such, rather than expand the scope of the composer’s genius, Baumgarten’s production and Barbara Steiner’s set somehow held the music hostage. Indeed, the focus fell on blatant pomp, explosions of colour and countless gimmicks. Among them was a take on Daniel’s lines, “Can the bright sun forsake her course, his native spots the leopard lose?”. Duly, at the end of Act 3, an elephant-sized cat without any spots appeared, six-foot tail wagging, head rolling back and forth, the mouth, opening and closing. The action was updated to the 21st century, a cameraman and a microphone following the principals through their antics and decision-making. Hannah Dörr’s ever-present video work, which also drew rapt attention throughout, often linked the story on stage to what’s currently newsworthy (military jeeps racing across a Middle Eastern desert, the gigantic photo of Belshazzar’s brutalised corpse, much as we saw Gaddafi’s), but added to the cauldron of confusion.

Christina Schmitt’s costumes were over the top: ethnic, feather headdresses of the three wise men; dozens of full-leather business suits among the chorus; the huge grotesque masks of the Babylonian gods who pranced about in Act 3. If it’s spectacle – even visual bombardment – you’re after, then this is your show. If you want Handel’s celestial music, just go ahead and close your eyes.