Belshazzar, Barbican, London

Handel scholars continue to talk up his oratorios as if they were the equal of his operas. The programme book for this performance went so far as to describe Belshazzar as “one of his most exciting, colourful and dramatically unified oratorios”. But this was only the second top-notch British revival in more than 20 years.

Belshazzar is not as consistently inspired as the better-known Saul, Theodora and Jephtha. The storyline ranges between oppressed Jews, arrogant Babylonians and besieged Persians, leading to some confusion as to who is on whose side. The leading parts are painted in black or white but none is strongly characterised. Too many arias come from the composer’s lower drawer, and while the chorus arguably takes the principal role, its music is often insipid.

Is it heresy to say Handel sometimes composed on autopilot? The one properly dramatised scene is the Bible-based “writing on the wall”, to which the music lends an eerie chill. It’s not enough to sustain a three-hour evening, with the first act alone lasting 75 minutes.

William Christie did his best for it. Resplendent in pink socks and looking no older than he did a decade ago, he conducted with characteristic rhythmic flamboyance and a fluency that knitted together the numbers like a through-composed skein: no tedious pauses. Christie’s Handel is never pedantic or metronomic – there’s always life in it – and Les Arts Florissants have become instruments of his will. His 26-strong chorus sang with due flexibility and character, no more so than on the very last cadence, the resonance of which was calibrated to fade magically.

The revelation in the cast was Caitlin Hulcup, an Australian soprano-ish mezzo who has flourished elsewhere since her early UK performances. She has clearly found her metier as a Handelian, singing the idealised role of Cyrus with unforced style, feeling and nobility. Rosemary Joshua did her considerable best for Nitocris, the Babylonian queen mum who gets inexplicably sidelined after a grand opening soliloquy. Allan Clayton’s Belshazzar ranted eloquently, especially in his tipsy hymn to wine. Iestyn Davies, as the divinely inspired Daniel, was not at his best. An evening of mixed blessings.

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