Right after San Francisco Opera completes their Summer season and San Francisco Symphony switches to light-fare and family entertainment, it’s time for various Festivals happening all over Bay Area. Last weekend by pure coincidence, we were graced by back-to-back performances of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio and opera (hence, the Handel weekend!)

Other than his everlasting Messiah, performances of Handel’s operas and oratorios around here are few and far between, and if they make appearance, it’s usually courtesy of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. At the War Memorial stage, only 7 operas (out of his 42) and 1 oratorio (Semele) has been performed to date, the last one being Orlando four years ago.

Therefore, you could imagine my excitement of hearing the announcements of the Handel weekend. And what a lovely weekend it was!

On Saturday, American Bach Soloists (ABS) presented Handel’s rare oratorio Belshazzar in concert form as part of their 2022 Summer Bach Festival. In his talk, ABS Artistic Director—and also the conductor of the evening performance—Jeffrey Thomas mentioned that the oratorio was so rare that “you’re unlikely to see it again”, although in Europe it will be performed staged at Theater an der Wien next February.

Belshazzar was composed by Handel in 1744 (concurrent with his more well-known oratorio Hercules) with libretto by Charles Jennens, who just three years earlier collaborated with Handel in Messiah. The oratorio was mostly based on the famous Belshazzar’s Feast scene of The Book of Daniel from The Old Testament, although Jennens also drew prophecies from Isaiah and Jeremiah as well. To make this “dramatic oratorio” work as a narrative, he also consulted Greek historians Herodotus (for the central role of Belshazzar’s mother Nitocis) and Xenophon (the story of Gobryas).

The result was a taut and powerfully told story, complete with glorious choruses. Unfortunately, the premier on March 27, 1745 was not successful, and the oratorio remained infrequently performed. A particularly interesting anecdote about the story was the fact that it’s the source of the idiom “writing on the wall”, as the appearance of such ominous feature contributed to a significant turn of the event in the story/oratorio.

American Bach Soloists truly made a compelling case in showcasing Belshazzar’s greatness. Armed with well-chosen soloists and dramatically engaging American Bach Cantorei, Thomas chose well-judged tempi throughout and very accommodative to his singers, many of whom had worked with him in the past (two members of the cast even won the Jeffrey Thomas Awards!) Given what I assumed a rather short rehearsal time for this concert, the success of this performance was even more extraordinary.

I only wished ABS performed this rare oratorio in its entirety and I also wished that more people attended this performance! They cut pretty much all scenes involving Nitocis and Daniel, including the whole opening scene (where Nitocis became convinced that the Jewish God was the true God and Daniel advised her that submission to the will of God would be rewarded) and in the beginning of Act 3 (resulting Daniel losing his aria “Can the black Aethiop change his skin”).

In addition, two full numbers for the Chorus were dropped, including the haunting “Oh, misery! Oh terror, hopeless grief!”, the Babylonians’ terrified response to the whole “writing on the wall” episode. I understood that this was done for time management, but for a piece this rare and a performance this good, it certainly would be nice to hear it in full!

Soprano Maya Kherani, fresh from performing Fortuna/Drusilla in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, brought out the tenderness in Nitocis, a mother who clearly saw the destructive nature of her son but unable to stop it. Kherani’s delicate instrument gleamed brightly throughout and she had good rapport with both tenor Matthew Hill (as Belshazzar) and countertenor Eric Jurenas (as Cyrus), whose duets were some of the highlights of the night. It was a pity that she tripped a little during the florid fioritura of Nitocis’ aria “The leafy honors of the field”, but she recovered nicely afterwards.

Jurenas portrayed Cyrus, the shining beacon of virtue in this piece, in a fully sympathetic manner. His voice sounded warm and friendly, although his top notes turned metallic at times. Nevertheless, the audience truly bought that his character was wholesomely good (although, in my mind I kept resisting the notion that a ruler could be this pure!)

As Daniel, mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit—who also participated in the following day opera—didn’t have too much to sing as a lot of her scenes were cut (including two arias). It was a pity, as Coit has a gorgeous voice, although she was extremely careful in her delivery. Bass-baritone Mischa Bouvier fared better as the vengeful Gobryas, looking to settle the score with Belshazzar for murdering his son. Bouvier managed to alternate his characterization of the grieving father between pity and anger, to make Gobryas a full human, not a monster.

The American Bach Cantorei was truly an asset that night, as they acted almost like a chameleon, alternatingly between the soul-stirring Chorus of the Judeans, the rallying war cry of the Chorus of the Persians, to the reckless abandon of the Chorus of the Babylonians. Particularly impressive was their transition between the first two scenes of Act 2, the juxtaposition between “To arms, to arms” (The Persians marching to Babylon) and “Ye tutelar gods of our empire” (The Babylonians’ drinking chorus)!

I saved the best for last, as personally I felt the night belonged to Hill as the title role. With a booming voice, an extraordinary breath control, a mastery of coloratura technique and a commanding stage presence to boot, he was simply a sight to behold, right from the opening notes of “Let festal joy triumphant reign”. Belshazzar isn’t an easy role to perform, as he is essentially an asshole, a blasphemous tyrant. In Hill’s hands, he interpreted Belshazzar more as a young man ready for a night of party. The audience lapped his antics up, and Hill received the biggest applause during the bows!

The weekend continues with Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and company tomorrow in parterre box.