Handel’s 1744 oratorio BELSHAZZAR
“a dramatic masterpiece that enshrines the virtues of peace, liberty and harmony between nations, in which triumphalism and bloody revenge have no place”
Belshazzar tells the colourful and thought-provoking story of the siege and fall of Babylon in 538 BC, the chorus variously taking the roles of Babylonians, Persians and Jews as the vivid tale unfolds. The libretto by Charles Jennens – of Messiah fame - weaves together historical accounts from Herodotus and Xenophon with elements from the Book of Daniel and prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah; it includes, of course, the memorable story of the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast.
The narrative is shared between the chorus and five soloists: Daniel (a Jewish prophet), Belshazzar (King of Babylon), Queen Nitocris (mother of Belshazzar and the wise, reflective heart of the oratorio), Cyrus (Prince of Persia) and Gobryas (an Assyrian nobleman, now allied to Cyrus). In our March performance, as in Handel’s time, the roles of Daniel and Cyrus will both be sung by women.
Handel and Jennens’ 3-act score is annotated with many vivid stage directions, indicating their awareness of the operatic potential of the piece. At the key dramatic moment of the feast in act two, Jennens gives us an especially elaborate indication: “As he [Belshazzar] is going to drink, a hand appears writing upon the wall over against him; he sees it, turns pale with fear, drops the bowl of wine, falls back in his seat, trembling from head to foot, and his knees knocking against each other.”
Valentine Singers will perform Handel’s Belshazzar at St Andrew’s Church, The Drive, Ilford on Saturday 25 March; anyone interested in taking part will be given details at the workshop.