These two DVDs present fully staged productions of two of Handel’s very finest dramatic English works; there are powerful visual moments in both productions regardless of the unsolvable debate
about whether operatic staging of oratorios works absolutely for complex works that the composer designed for concert presentation. However, the 2008 Aix-en-Provence performance of Belshazzar is infuriating because René Jacobs’s decisions – unhistorical, unstylish and profoundly unmusical – cause a cornucopia of horrible aberrations. His conducting technique is astonishingly bad; he frequently grunts loudly and gestures bizarrely as if he is hanging up the washing to dry, regardless of the musical metre and mood. Worse still are his distrustful intrusions into instrumentation: during the debauched anti-hero’s defiant exit “I thank thee Sesach” the voice part is inauthentically doubled by bassoon (the result is not merely inaccurate but tasteless); the sublime duet “Great victor, at thy feet I bow” has a flute needlessly added to the first violins (a typical example of many pointless tinkerings); the gloating Babylonian chorus “Ye tutelar gods” is marred by the ridiculous addition of tambourine and recorders.
Many of the choruses are undermined by Jacobs’s decision to have important lines sung by a group of soloists; this incorrectly applied practice is liberally daubed all over proceedings, and ruins the miraculous opening phrase of “Recall, O King, thy rash command” (in which the horrified Jews beg Belshazzar not to drink from the sacred cups). Invasive basso continuo-playing persistently interferes during recitatives in mannered ways (one longs for a few simple chords so that the singers can be allowed to get on with their jobs), and Jacobs also provides numerous little instrumental interludes between numbers (none of them advantageous or plausible). The list of horrors could go on but it suffices to conclude that Jacobs’s musical direction is catastrophic (unless you don’t know the oratorio, in which case you might be easily gulled by its undeniable energy). Happily, stage producers Christof Nel and Martina Jochem place their faith entirely in Charles Jennens’s plot and characters; this production is a rare instance of a sincere staging full of good things being fundamentally undermined by gimmicky musicianship (usually one expects the reverse!). The unchanging set features several rising levels across which the Babylonians, Persians and Jews interact, proclaim and respond. The capable RIAS Chamber Choir get stuck in to the dramatic story and the entire cast achieve an abundance of highly effective acting and dramatic visual ideas, even if it gets a bit wearisome that Kenneth Tarver’s loony-eyed Belshazzar strides about the stage wielding a golden axe almost constantly – even in scenes where his maniacal posturing has no place. Most of the singers are superb and their acting draws us into the contrasting moralities and fortunes of their characters.
Rosemary Joshua and Neal Davies each perform their roles as suffering parents very movingly. Bejun Mehta’s coloratura in the noble Cyrus’s faster arias is dazzling; “Destructive war” is much too hurried by Jacobs but the stage action of the chorus throwing down their swords and vowing to pursue peace is exhilarating.
The 2009 Salzburg production of Handel’s penultimate masterpiece Theodora – his only English oratorio set in early Christian times – is much more rewarding. Christof Loy eschews stage scenery in favour of a moodily lit backdrop of the festival hall’s massive pipe organ and props of just sparse wooden chairs (which are used or cleared smoothly by soloists and the Salzburg Bach Choir as the scenes require). The action is intensely dramatic but tends to shy away from narrative staging – in some respects the result is like a semi-staged concert with intense acting and a mobile chorus.
Christine Schäfer adopts a fragile demeanour as Theodora and her English pronunciation isn’t bad. Bejun Mehta is
less vocally immaculate here than in Belshazzar: his spirited performance of Didymus’s heroic arias in Act 1 and the
two sublime duets are enjoyable but I didn’t enjoy his vibrato and peculiar closed-mouth treatment of vowels in “Deeds of kindness” as much as the enthusiastic Salzburg audience. Joseph Kaiser gives an outstanding vocal and dramatic performance as the beleaguered Roman guard Septimius: “Descend kind pity” is sung beautifully and his emotive acting throughout is a key part of the production’s success – at the final tragic scene the camerawork shows him to be genuinely in tears as his friends are martyred. The Salzburg Bach Choir manages the impressive feat of moving around a lot while remaining vocally balanced and blended (and their English is flawless). The insertion of the Organ Concerto in G minor (HWV310) partway through Act 3 is odd (Handel performed it between the parts of Theodora but not during the drama). The musical provision from the classy team of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Ivor Bolton is exemplary at letting Handel do the talking.