Elder Hall, University of Adelaide
November 11, 2017

With one notable exception, performances of Handel’s operas and oratorios are still relatively rare in this country. Not that there is any shortage of either: at last count – and scholars keep coming up with more – Handel wrote 42 operas and 29 oratorios. Very often, those terms are interchangeable; there is so much drama in oratorios, they are often performed in semi-staged performances.

There was some sense of ambivalence in a performance of Handel’s Belshazzar in Adelaide this past weekend, billed as the first performance in South Australia.

Handel composed Belshazzar in London over the summer of 1744, a period the Handel scholar Winton Dean has characterised as “the peak of  his creative life”. It is based on a libretto by Charles Jennens, embellished from the Old Testament account of the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, and the subsequent liberation of the Jews, as recounted somewhat inaccurately in the Book of Daniel.

The first performance was on March 27, 1745 at the King’s Theatre in London. It had only a few revivals in subsequent years, more since the upsurge of interest in Baroque music from the 1960s onwards. Occasionally, it is presented in staged performance, notably at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008. Following his recent production of Saul seen in Adelaide last March, it has all the pre-requisites for a new production by Barrie Kosky: inter-family rivalry, a massacre, an orgy and the spectral intervention of God himself.

It is also long. Very long. This Adelaide performance amounted to 135 minutes of music – about 20 minutes were shaved off the original score. So it is an endurance test for singers, chorus, orchestra and audience.

Robert MacfarlaneTenor Robert Macfarlane

Overall, this performance by the Adelaide Philharmonia Chorus came off very well indeed. This was largely due to the unflagging energy and inspirational vitality of conductor Graham Abbott, now surely the leading Handel specialist in this country. (And having conducted Messiah some 74 times surely deserves a medal!) Jumping between the podium and harpsichord continuo, Abbott kept the momentum chugging along, even when it threatened to flag.

Handel presents challenges all round, especially for a non-professional chorus. On the whole, the Adelaide Philharmonia Chorus performed admirably, especially in negotiating Handel’s filigree and roulades. With 41 female choristers and 22 males, it sounded a little unbalanced. Some more bass ‘grunt’ would have been useful. This may have been the fault of the venue itself; Elder Hall is wonderful for strings and keyboards but less so for voices, it would seem. Voices seem to soar into its lofty vaults, losing bite and definition. The most impressive choral moments were those more subdued passages where Abbott drew out a rich, tightly knit texture. At this point, the sterling work of Aldis Sils, the Philharmonia’s Music Director, in preparing the chorus merits special praise.

So too the orchestra of 23 players, mostly strings, with a pair of modern oboes and bassoon, and timpani and a pair of trumpets reserved for the more grandiose moments in the second half. The violins fiddled vigorously and ceaselessly for most of the work, with only a few blemishes of intonation. Coming only a couple of days after the experience here of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, this heroic little band of freelancers measured up admirably. In time, let’s hope that Abbott manages to encourage performances on period instruments and with true Baroque practice.

As I observed in the staging of Esther a couple of weekends ago in the Canberra Playhouse, any performance of Handel stands or falls on the quality of its vocal soloists. In the present Belshazzar, the cast was somewhat uneven and, of the five main soloists, two shone out as real stars.

Tenor Robert Macfarlane, returning to his hometown after a burgeoning European career, cut a strapping Belshazzar. With diction to die for and a dynamic range rare in my experience, it is cheering to see how he has steered clear of that precious Pears-Galliver ‘head-coo-sound’ in favour of the more robust tone of his German teacher Peter Schreier. Let’s hope that Australia can keep him, not just as the favoured Evangelist of the day, but also in contemporary music, for which he shows real flair and commitment.

Macfarlane was well matched, vocally and dramatically, by mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell, in another pants role, that of Cyrus, the conquering Prince of Persia. Steadfast and full-blooded, she dominated the stage and delivered beautifully ornamented da capo moments.

Soprano Kate Macfarlane has a smaller, more agile voice, ideally suited to the florid runs and roulades of Handel’s notoriously dangerous vocal writing. Although somewhat lacking in portraying the dramatic pathos of Queen Nitocris, mother of the vanquished Belshazzar, she delivered some of the most beautiful singing of the night.

Adelaide Philharmonia ChorusAdelaide Philharmonia Chorus. Photo © Vincent Plush

In the role of Daniel, the Jewish seer who interpreted the famed ‘writing on the wall’, counter-tenor Matthew Rutty was slow to start, but came to his own later in his prophesies. Much the same could be said of baritone Jeremy Tatchell, in the role of Gobrias, the Assyrian nobleman who defected to the cause of Cyrus. He cut another dramatic presence, if somewhat wooden and perhaps more suited to 19th-century Italian opera than the Baroque, sometimes spitting out the text, and losing the period ambience created by his cohorts.

Two minor roles were taken by Alexandra Cunningham and Christopher Davies, both from the ranks of the chorus. At times, the strings could have been reduced to single desks to differentiate the smaller voices and minor characters.

Throughout, this performance vacillated between concert oratorio and staged opera. Macfarlane, resplendent in suit and green tie, led the way here, visually and vocally, attempting to give life to his character. It would have been more successful had other members of the cast followed his lead. Russell did, from the outset; others tried too, but somewhat half-heartedly. Macfarlane’s theatrics were not entirely successful; well intentioned, they showed the need for discipline and application across the full cast. He is a natural director: it would be good to see him actually direct Baroque opera some day soon.

Mercifully, the text was projected onto a large screen behind the lower strings. There was a lot of that too, and more care should have been taken to purge its spelling errors. A little more musicology in the skimpy printed programme would have helped context and setting of this kind of piece. An hour before the performance, Abbott – the consummate educator and public speaker – gave his personal insights into the work; sadly, few in the audience had arrived to hear him. Those remarks were surely the keys to music he clearly loves and in which he thrives.

This Belshazzar was a reminder that Adelaide was once the pre-eminent centre for choral music in Australia. The ABC’s Adelaide Singers, the Harmony Choir, Norman Chinner and the Philharmonic Choir, the Conservatorium Operas, and all those huge Festival openers, notably Mahler’s Eighth in March 1968, when Adelaide really did manage to muster almost a thousand singers on the stage of the old Centennial Hall.

Let’s hope the Adelaide Philharmonia Chorus continues this tradition in further performances of historically informed Handel and the like.