When Handel wanted to produce his oratorio Esther in London in 1732, the Bishop of London responded with a ban on staged performances of any work involving persons mentioned in the Bible – an act of censorship that lasted more than 170 years.
Nowadays it has become quite common to see such works fully staged, but that isn’t how Handel conceived them – and occasionally it shows. Barrie Kosky succeeded with Saul at Glyndebourne in 2015, but Daniel Slater has more of a struggle on his hands with Belshazzar at the Grange, the moralising choruses proving particularly intractable.
Visually, there are imposing sets by Robert Innes Hopkins that include a magnificent Tower of Babel on which various members of the cast balance precariously throughout the show. Made up of Grange Festival forces and members of the Sixteen, the chorus works hard, frequently changing costumes as they switch back and forth between – as the festival’s website puts it – ‘pleasure-seeking Babylonians, solemn Jews and noble Persians’.
The narrative is clear, but despite definite engagement from the principals vocal standards are mixed: Claire Booth sounds stretched by the role of Belshazzar’s mother Nitocris, and her amorous attachment to James Laing’s pious Daniel feels unconvincing. Robert Murray has a mixed evening in the title role and the scenes of revelry and debauch – like pretty well all operatic orgies – are embarrassing.
Christopher Ainslie makes something effective out of the Persian conqueror Cyrus, but despite Henry Waddington’s best efforts, the role of the renegade Babylonian noble Gobrias remains a thankless one.
Harry Christophers conducts a performance that only fitfully bursts into dramatic life.