VIENNA – The theorbo player and conductor Christina Pluhar, together with her ensemble L’Arpeggiata, has a gift for presenting daring but mesmerizing interpretations of Baroque repertoire. She made her operatic debut here (Feb. 20-March 2) at the Theater an der Wien with a new production of the Handel oratorio Belshazzar. Also in stock for the audience was the concert “Händel Goes Wild,” as based on L’Arpeggiata’s album of the same name released in 2021.
The Theater an der Wien — currently running operations from its stylish temporary quarters in the Museumsquartier until renovations to its home theater are complete in 2024 — has a tradition of presenting Handel in both concert and staged performances. Perhaps most controversially, Claus Guth staged Messiah in 2009. Fortunately, the production of Belshazzar by Marie-Eve Signeyrole does not undermine the score but rather provides a thought-provoking take on the violent struggle between Babylon and Persia.
The staging, as seen Feb. 28, updates the story from pre-Christian times (around 538 B.C.) to a futuristic landscape in which water is scarce and reality television captures every move of the Babylonian king Belshazzar and his mother Nitrocris. The king has monopolized the market with his own private company, the supertitles explain during the overture, while territories outside Babylon are arid and as hot as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The Persian prince, Cyrus, has set out to provide water for everyone.
Cameramen accompany the characters to provide live video footage, both for the audience and the fictional station RoyalTV, to both disturbing and comic results. Cyrus enters through an aisle of the theater to take water from the walls of Babylon (“We made it,” reads the projection of an Instagram post). The profligate king first appears in a bubble bath for his aria “Let festal joy triumphant reign,” surrounded by physically abused concubines that huddle shaking on the floor.
It is implied, meanwhile, that his mother is having an affair with the Jewish prophet Daniel, who extracts sap from a tree to provide the Queen with a beauty treatment as she sings the aria “O sacred oracles of truth.” The second-act banquet scene takes place in a kind of thermal spa where Babylonians strut for the camera (“Ye tutelar gods of our empire, look down,” sings the chorus). As per the libretto, Cyrus successfully reroutes the river Euphrates and slays Belshazzar, liberating the Jews from his cruel reign. “Amen, Hallelujah!” rejoices the chorus, holding candles as the lights fade to black.
The libretto is skillfully trimmed, excising one aria per character and speeding up the action in the third act by shortening the first scene. The plot is also at times drowned in contemporary gags. The king’s scenes, in particular, are packed with gratuitous details, and camera close-ups can be off-putting. Certainly, we don’t have to watch Belshazzar try to fornicate with a dead body or vomit his alcohol on a concubine at so close a distance. Nevertheless, Signeyrole offers a biting commentary on the destructiveness of mankind in the present day while mining the stuff of the libretto.
The roles of Cyrus and Daniel are cast with mezzo-sopranos and not countertenors, as per the 1745 premiere in London. Vivica Genaux brings a smooth tone and expert runs to the role of the Persian prince and Eva Zaïcik elicits a touch of pathos as the Jewish prophet. The Queen Nitocris of soprano Jeanine De Bique is both regal and vulnerable as she tries to convince her son to change his ways. While her voice was a bit tight in her first aria, “Thou, God most high,” she warmed up to endow her numbers with rich high tones and elegant coloratura passages.
The bass Michael Nagl is convincing as Gobrias, a Babylonian who has defected to the Persians, offering a moving take on the slow aria “Great God, who, yet but darkly known.” The one problematic performance is that of Robert Murray as Belshazzar, who may have been too overwhelmed by the production’s scenic demands to deliver clean runs during his arias — whether lying in a bubble bath or cavorting around the stage like a pop star in the banquet scene. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir, representing Babylonians, Persians and Jews, is consistently in fine form.
Pluhar leads her ensemble in a tight, crisp performance that is packed with lively rhythms. She also follows the singers with an elastic tempo, which provides for some spontaneity in the score. Just as Signeyrole creates a timeless space where the ancient meets the futuristic, the conductor provides a reading of Handel’s oratorio that is as authentic as it is fresh.
For the “Händel Goes Wild” concert on Feb. 25, Pluhar was seated opposite L’Arpeggiata with a theorbo in hand, leading the musicians in her arrangements with gentle nods of the head. The program is based on the notion that Baroque music provides formal structures within which musicians can improvise freely, even if that means integrating contemporary vernacular. Handel’s harmonies are extended to include jazzed-up sonorities and instrumentation. Within a period ensemble of zink and Baroque string instruments, the line-up featured a piano, clarinet, percussion, and double bass that broke out into full-blown jazz interludes.
The result is by turns over-the-top and ground-breaking — if one occasionally longs for a more circumscribed approach, the fluid, virtuosic musicianship reels in the listener as the musicians embark on an adventure through time and space. The program was presented without pause between numbers, although the audience couldn’t help but break out into enthusiastic applause. Countertenor Valer Sabadus and soprano Céline Scheen joined for solo numbers and duets, swaying their bodies freely to the music.
Sabadus, who also sings on the recording, has a gift for high-lying flourishes and becoming one with the ensemble. He impressed especially in the aria “Verdi prati,” which the character Ruggiero sings in the second act of the opera Alcina. “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto,” another Ruggiero selection that was taken at a faster pace than on the recording, still showcased his heart-wrenching improvisations.
Some numbers, like “Where’er you walk” from Semele, were thoroughly jazzed-up, featuring pizzicati strings that underscored the jazz quartet. Other numbers vacillated freely between Baroque and jazz sonorities with break-out sessions for the percussionist (Tobias Steinberger) or the cornetto player (Doron Sherwin). Instrumental interludes were treated even more liberally. The Sinfonia from Alcina transitioned inventively into what sounded like a klezmer ensemble led by the clarinetist Adalberto Ferrari, and a movement from Vivaldi’s Concerto in g-minor was barely recognizable beneath a jam session that included the Baroque guitarist Josep María Martì Duran.
The duets of Sabadus and Scheen also left something to be desired. The passion between them was at best stilted in the melting “Io t’abbraccio” from Rodelinda. Nevertheless, in a city brimming with top-notch ensembles and orchestras, the audience’s standing ovation proved that L’Arpeggiata is in a class of its own.