Opera Scotland

Belshazzar

Music

George Frideric Handel (born Halle, 23 February 1685; died London, 14 April 1759).

Text

Charles Jennens (1700-1773).

Source

Biblical (Book of Daniel, Chapter 5), also the writings of Herodotus and Xenophon.

 

Premieres

First Performance: London (King's Theatre), 27 March 1745.

First Performance in Scotland: tbc.

 

Background

Belshazzar was composed as a dramatic oratorio telling a chronological story, unlike its fore-runner, Messiah, which merely illustrates important extracts from scripture. In this it followed the example successfully set by Samson, Semele and Hercules (though only the first of those was of biblical origin). Belshazzar contains several stageworthy incidents, most notably the 'Writing on the Wall' scene, and is one of those among Handel's oratorios that has most successfully been performed in operatic guise. In recent times it has perhaps suffered comparative neglect because of the superb pure concert work composed on the same subject by Sir William Walton.

 

Characters

Belshazzar, King of Babylon (tenor)

Nitocris, mother of Belshazzar (soprano)

Cyrus, Prince of Persia (alto)

Daniel, a Jewish prophet (alto)

Gobrias, an Assyrian nobleman (baritone)

Arioch, a Babylonian lord (tenor)

Messenger (bass)

 

Plot Summary

The action is set in 538BC at Babylon. centring on the siege by Cyrus leading his army of Medes and Persians. The climax of the oratorio is inevitably Belshazzar's feast, as described in the Book of Daniel, in which his arrogance is seen to be punished.

Nitocris reflects on the inevitable fall of empires and her continuing faith in God, in which she is consoled by Daniel, leader of the captive Jews. In the siege camp, Gobrias hopes for revenge because his son was killed by Belshazzar. Cyrus comforts him by recounting a dream he has had - his attack can be successful as a result of diverting the course of the Euphrates, which flows through the city. The attack along the dry river bed will coincide with a traditional Babylonian feast, when the defenders will be drunk. Daniel and the Jews anticipate what they believe to be their approaching freedom. The Jews and Nitocris complain about Belshazzar's use of sacred vessels as drinking cups.

The plan of Cyrus to divert the river is successful and his army enters Babylon along the river bed. At the banquet, Belshazzar and his associates drink heavily. They are terrified when writing appears on the wall. No-one can explain it until Nitocris summons Daniel, who announces that Belshazzar's days are numbered. His mother begs him once more to repent. Having entered the city, Cyrus orders the people to be treated gently - they are his subjects now - only Belshazzar is the enemy. In the skirmish that follows, Belshazzar is killed. Nitocris acknowledges Cyrus as King, and he promises Daniel that he will free the Jews and rebuild the temple at Jerusale.

The Cast

Belshazzar
 King of Babylon
Cyrus
 Prince of Persia
Daniel
 a Jewish prophet
Gobrias
 an Assyrian Nobleman, revolted against Belshazzar and allied to Cyrus
Nitocris
 mother of Belshazzar

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