Cyrus the Great has been admired by many people, from the ancient Hebrews to the Greeks to Thomas Jefferson. When Cyrus conquered the Babylonians, he freed many enslaved people and returned the cultural objects stolen from them. The Cyrus Cylinder, made to commemorate these events, is on display at the Sackler Gallery, on loan from the British Museum. At the Freer Gallery of Art on Saturday night, the Gallery Voices and the Smithsonian Concerto Grosso performed selections from Handel’s oratorio “Belshazzar,” which recounts the demise of the Babylonians, based primarily on the biblical Book of Daniel.
Downsized to fit the dimensions of the Freer’s auditorium, the instrumental ensemble of six strings, two oboes and harpsichord created a valiant and refined sound, matched well by 12 strong voices in the choruses, which are the best part of the score. What would have made a good performance great, a set of excellent soloists, was lacking, but not in a way that detracted from one’s enjoyment of the music. Countertenor Roger Isaacs was piercing as Cyrus, a role written for a female contralto, and Rosa Lamoreaux was elegant if slightly stretched as the far-seeing Nitocris. As her son Belshazzar, on whom so much of the oratorio depends, tenor Robert Petillo had the character’s arrogant swagger, if not always the vocal goods to go with it. William Sharp was a sympathetic Gobrias, while Carrie Eyler’s Daniel was a little tremulous and unsure of intonation.
Conductor Kenneth Slowik’s achievement was in the choice of programming, even in an incomplete performance and with limited forces. Not only did it make a fascinating connection with an ancient artifact, it drew attention to one of Handel’s most beautiful and striking works. The composer’s other biblical oratorios are scandalously underperformed, perhaps because of the annual mania for one particular oratorio that shall remain nameless.
Downey is a freelance writer.