he oratorio, Belshazzar, devotes itself to the story of the Babylonian king, Belshazzar, as presented in the biblical story from the book of Daniel. Belshazzar commits sacrilege against the God of the Israelites, upon which a ghostly hand inscribes the mysterious text, the Menetekel, upon the wall of the court, predicting the downfall of the kingdom and the death of Belshazzar at the hands of the Persians. The prophecy is fulfilled that very same night.
There are three versions of Belshazzar, dated 1745, 1751 and 1758. Handel composed the first between 23rd August and 23rd October, 1744. The exact dates are known from the correspondence Handel had with his librettist, Charles Jennens. Jennens had already penned the libretti to Saul and the Messiah. He was an enlightened theologian who didn't shy away from embellishing the biblical story to enhance the libretto's dramatic development. The debut performance took place on 27th March 1745 in the King's Theatre, Haymarket in London. But the work attracted few listeners, with even fewer being enthusiastic. A possible reason for this failure was the political message, from Handel unintended but nevertheless inferable, contained in the libretto. It could be seen as a manifesto against the ruling king of the time, George II, who, as a member of the House of Hanover, was not seen as the rightful monarch by many of the British. So it was that the conquering of the throne by Cyrus was seen as an allegory of a similar conquest in England by a member of the House of Stewart. Belshazzar was discontinued after only three performances and only years later, in 1751, after revisions from Handel, was it resumed. In addition to minor improvements, the changes included new arias, whereby others were cut and the role of Cyrus was song by a countertenor instead of a mezzo-soprano. It was far more successful than the original, and it is this second version (slightly shortened) that was used for this recording. It starts with the second scene of the première.
Charles Jennens created an unbelievably dramatic libretto. He embroidered the biblical story of the Babylonian king, Balshazzar, with historical sources he found in Heredotus and Xenophon. In the oratorio, for example, the key figure of Nitocris is taken from Herodotus's histories apodexis. The oratorio has, even for Handel, extraordinary colour and vitality. The responsibility for the high drama of the piece rests mostly with the choir, which musically represents the three peoples. Babylon, the capital of Assyria, in the year 538 BC, is the scene of the action. The Euphrates flows through the city. It was diverted during the building of the city walls and a lake on the west side of the city was formed. The armies of Media and Persia, under the leadership of King Cyrus, are encamped before the walls.
The first act starts before the gates of Babylon. From the walls, the Babylonians mock Cyrus and his fatuous plans to take the city. Gobrias, a Babylonian who has defected to Cyrus after his son was murdered by Balshazzar, confirms the sturdiness of the city's fortifications. Cyrus consoles him and relates his dream where he has seen the Euphrates dried up. He then devises a plan whereby the river would be diverted to the lake outside the walls, allowing them to penetrate the city using the waterless riverbed. Gobrias supports the idea to venture the plan on the day of the feast to Sesach, when the Babylonians pay homage to their god of wine, Sesach, and it is their religious duty to become intoxicated. Cyrus rouses his army and prays to God for support. The ensuing chorale takes up this plea to God from the Persians. In Babylon, the prophet Daniel predicts, for the imprisoned people of the Jews, the impending downfall of the city and proclaims Cyrus their God-sent liberator. The Jewish people sing a joyful chorale about their imminent deliverance. The chorale's first solemn, homophonic section expresses their hope of rescue.
In the fourth scene, Belshazzar opens the festival in honour of Sesach. The people revel and imbibe excessively. Nitocris pleads with her son to put a stop to the celebrations, but he orders the sacred chalice of the Jews to be brought from the temple to be used as a wine goblet. Nitocris and the Jews warn him of the consequences of this sacrilege. The Jewish people react with the announcement that Belshazzar will shortly feel the wrath of God for his actions. In this three-sectioned chorale, the emotions develop by slow degrees: at first, sadness and hurt, then, in the second and third sections respectively, the suppressed and finally the released anger can be perceived. Especially moving is the demand for remorse that the Jewish people express. It goes singly through all the voices, builds up and finally flows into a homophonic sounding realisation that the waiting apparently will be in vain. The chromatically descending line "and every step he takes on his devoted head precipitates the thunder down" symbolises this hope gradually being transformed into anger.
The second act starts with the Persians excitedly observing the diversion of the waters. "See from his post Euphrates flies
" with the soprano theme (coloratura) reflecting the flowing of the waters and the joyful excitement radiating out amongst the Persians as they watch the spectacle. This further prompts them to partake in a bizarre role-play, in which they contrive a dialogue between the incensed Babylonians (female choir) and the emboldened Persians (male choir). Then Cyrus gives the order to cross the riverbed and capture the city. The Persians intone a belligerent chorale.
The feasting of the Babylonians is at its highpoint. Belshazzar is arrogantly blaspheming Jehova and, just as he is about to take the chalice to his mouth, there occurs what the Jews had warned him would happen. A ghostly hand inscribes on the wall the incomprehensible words "mene, mene, tekel, upharsin". Here, Handel realizes a musical treatment that is possibly is not close to any other operatic convention. The violins ascend unaccompanied in a chromatic line adagio e staccato, ma piano. Belshazzar is struck dumb with horror, solely able to utter an appalled sigh. The people of Babylon cry for help while Belshazzar still points fearfully at the mysterious script. Nobody can decipher the writings, and, at the suggestion of Nitocris, the prophet Daniel is summoned. He translates, from Handel composed as a suspenseful recitative accompagnato, the following: mene, it is the will of the God you dishonoured that the days of your reign be numbered; tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; upharsin, your kingdom will be divided and be given to the Medes and Persians. Nitocris beseeches Belshazzar to plead with Jehova for forgiveness, but he does not allow himself to be swayed, even now. Cyrus and Gobrias infiltrate the city and lay the foundation for the dethroning of Belshazzar.
The third act opens with Nitocris in her chambers receiving news of the conquest of the city. The Jews are joyfully celebrating and thank Jehova for his mercy. Convinced of his strength, the brazen Belshazzar confronts the invaders. He falls in battle, the orchestra executing a military march. Nitocris submits to the new ruler, Cyrus, who promises the Babylonians freedom also. He grants this to Nitocris as well, and even entreats her to accept him as son in Balshazzars stead. Daniel predicts for Cyrus that he will become the deliverer of the people of Israel and will rebuild the city and temple of Jerusalem. This, Cyrus commends to do.