I've recently started reviewing opera DVDs for Limelight. It's a nice gig, although if they'd the height of my "unwatched" pile back in Sydney, they might have thought twice about trusting me. Deadlines work wonders, however, so I've watched more opera on DVD than I usually would, and then attempted to summarise them in 250-300 words. Amazingly, given that word limits are usually my bête noire when it comes to opera, this has not so far been a problem.
But that's because I've been just a little bit cursed. Only a little bit. Nothing I've watched has truly hurt my brain or eyes — in fact most of them have been reasonably entertaining — but none of them has seemed to require more than 300 words. Until yesterday. I watched Handel's Belshazzar, and I've already submitted my review, but it turns out that this time, there's more to say.
This is a production from the 2008 Aix-en-Provence Festival, directed by Christof Nel and conducted by René Jacobs. I have to be honest. The thought of a staged Belshazzar wasn't exactly thrilling me to the core, and the rather grey cover image didn't much help. Well, insert proverb about DVDs and judging here. It's actually quite wonderful.
I mean, it's Handel, so there's a level of musical gorgeousness which goes without saying. Then you have the particular musical forces involved: René Jacobs, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, the RIAS Kammerchor and, oh yes, some fairly sensational soloists, including my current favourite countertenor, Bejun Mehta. So that's the musical side of things sorted, but what lifts this to the next level is that everybody on stage — soloists and chorus — is acting their heart out. A fairly standard Biblical oratorio is transformed into an incredibly intense human drama.
The production has its oddities but it is, despite its literal colour, full of life, and its sharpest edges are nicely smoothed out by the neverending loveliness of the music — there are no big hit arias, but the score is full of inventive music and the libretto is probably one of the best Handel ever had to work with. (It's certainly better than Joseph and his Brethren, with its aria about a pelican.) Nel's production certainly left me with the impression that it had some profound things to say about politics and human nature, and whether that's true or not, it still reflects well on the work and on Nel's staging.
Bejun Mehta in action lived up to the expectation set by Bejun Mehta on record — his Handel arias is still the only CD I've given a five star review (clearly I haven't reviewed Joyce DiDonato's Diva/Divo yet) and he's five star Cyrus here too. Voice just as beautiful and acting remarkably good. He lives every inch of that role. Kenneth Tarver as Belshazzar is less human and much more animal. Deliberately overplayed, I think; I kept thinking he was the embodiment of all the evil qualities than any group at war naturally ascribes to its enemy, if only for propaganda purposes. He's so creepy that it's a surprise, when he finally sings, to hear such a clear, attractive voice.
Right. But. Rosemary Joshua. That's really why I'm here. I've known her name for a long time, and heard her occasionally on disc (she's even on Bejun's CD) but she'd never registered with me as somebody to actively pursue. Then she arrived on my screen with her extraordinary opening monologue and ... wow. As strong as all the acting in this show is, she still tops everybody for intensity, for beauty, for all round amazingness. She's scintillating, and her voice will apparently do anything she asks it to. So dignified and so fragile, with an uncanny ability to make even the most gossamer da capo ornament sound like an essential part of her character.
Seriously, she's so completely my type it's not funny, and I can't account for my delay in falling for her. No excuses. I just need more Rosemary. There's a box in Sydney somewhere which contains my copy of her Handel duets CD with Sarah Connolly (I know), a CD I only managed to hear once before packing everything up and putting in storage. I'll get it back eventually. In the meantime, YouTube is my friend, and there are a couple of Handel operas I might need to own.
Trailer. No Rosemary, but plenty of Bejun, and how fantastic is that choir?