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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Handel: Belshazzar

03/09/2014 1:00 pm
03/09/2014 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

This past March 5th was Ash Wednesday, inaugurating the five-week (actually forty-day) penitential period called Lent in the traditional Christian calendar. In old Catholic Europe (and even in Protestant countries) the opera houses closed for the duration. The church authorities did, however, permit the performance of sacred oratorio.

In keeping with that long established custom, on the first Sunday in Lent I present one of George Frideric Handel's Biblical oratorios: Belshazzar, which premiered in London during Lent of 1745. It has a libretto derived largely from the Old Testament book of the prophet Daniel by Charles Jennens, who four years previously provided Handel with the libretto of Messiah. The basic difference between those two works is that Messiah is a musical reflection upon a composite of various verses from Holy Scripture including the New Testament, whereas Belshazzar is very specifically one Old Testament story. Jennens added into his Belshazzar wordbook elements from classical Greek texts (historians Herotodus and Xenophon), plus the prophecies of the fall of Babylon in Isaiah. The result was a highly dramatic, well-nigh operatic setup for Handel to put into music.

The tale is told of the rash young tyrant, Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, and the ill-fated feast he gave in the royal palace. The pleas of his mother Nitocris would not prevent him from committing sacrilege. The feasting stopped suddenly when the king saw the Lord God's handwriting upon the wall.

On Sunday, February 18, 2007, I presented the 1991 Archiv release of Belshazzar with Trevor Pinnock conducting the choir and period instrumentalists of the English Concert. This Handelian rarity has been recorded again with William Christie leading his own French period instrument ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, with a cast of native English speaking vocal soloists. After its 1745 premiere Handel continued to tinker with the score of Belshazzar for its 1751 revival. Both Pinnock and Christie adhere as closely as possible to the original 1745 score, admitting only a few of Handel's revisions. Christie's new Belshazzar is the world premiere 2013 release of Les Arts Florissants under its own LAF record label. Both the LAF and Archiv issues come on three silver discs.