Cher Public

Better call Saul

saul-amazonHandel’s dramatic oratorios are very difficult to stage—many clutch their pearls while bemoaning “…but they were never meant to be staged”—and require a vivid theatrical imagination to bring them to life. Director Barrie Kosky’s Glyndebourne 2015 production of Handel’s 1739 oratorio Saul (released on Opus Arte DVD) shows just such an imagination as well as a strong cast and design team. The familiar Biblical tale begins with the aftermath of David’s slaying of Goliath, and Kosky eschews any attempt at realism, leading us through the story in an almost dreamlike state.

Kosky calls himself an “extravagant minimalist” and here, the costumes are extravagant and the scenic elements minimal, both created with great style by designer Katrin Lea Tag. At the beginning, we see only the severed head of Goliath; after the prelude, we have decorated banquet tables reflecting the Israelites’ celebration of the victory of David.

The chorus sings thanks to God and praises David, dressed in exaggerated elements of baroque costumes. The arrival of King Saul, his son Jonathan and daughters, the haughty Merab and the plaintive Michal, begins the cycle of jealousy and madness that brings down the King and leads to Israel’s defeat by the Philistines.

At first, the joyful Saul offers David the hand of his daughter Merab, but she spurns him as a commoner; meanwhile her sister Michal expresses her love for David. Merab’s refusal infuriates Saul, who begins to burn with jealousy of David as the Israelite women offer the victor tributes. In another interesting choice by the director, the production conflates the roles of Abner (Saul’s advisor), the High Priest, the Amalekite, and Doeg into one single character costumed as a sort of cross between the Emcee from Cabaret and the High Priest of Baal from Samson et Dalila.

He functions here rather like Lear’s Fool, commenting on Saul’s descent into madness; in fact, elements of King Lear are everywhere as Saul becomes increasingly isolated, desperate, and estranged from his family.

Another production element that works very well is the inclusion of six dancers who enliven some of the long instrumental passages in the inventive and clever choreography by Otto Pichler. These mostly amusing dance sequences contribute mightily to the dreamlike landscape of the production.

I also must mention the utterly grotesque scene where the mad Saul seeks out the Witch of Endor for aid. Emerging from the ground like a deformed Erda, John Graham-Hall plays the witch suckling Saul to her pendulous breasts in a scene actually uncomfortable to watch. The milk-dripping Saul transforms into the spirit of Samuel, who predicts the downfall of the kingdom.

The excellent singing actor Christopher Purves plays Saul with very broad strokes, using his remarkable physical versatility to make Saul’s madness even more vivid. He shakes, he gibbers, he lashes out in fury and rage, all the while singing powerfully, though his voice seems a bit heavy for some of the faster passages. Countertenor Iestyn Davies is a gentle, quiet, and very human David, singing with great beauty and purity of tone; Kosky implies a bit of homoeroticism in David’s friendship with Jonathan (an excellent Paul Appleby.)

Lucy Crowe is a ravishing Merab, easily singing the most difficult coloratura passages and floating some of the most gorgeous high notes I’ve heard in years. The weak link is Sophie Bevan’s Michal, sincere in her desperate passion for David but sounding whiny and hard-edged in the upper register. Benjamin Hulett has a grotesque charm in the multiple roles of Saul’s advisor, with stylized movement that works very well.

Ivor Bolton’s mastery of Handel’s scores is well known, and here he draws a lively and very precise reading from the fine Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Communication between conductor, orchestra, and singer is exemplary here. In Handel oratorios, of course, the chorus is of vital importance in the duel role of characters and commenters. Under Chorus Master Jeremy Bines, this chorus sings and acts with superb clarity and diction and does extremely well with choreographed moments when the whole chorus is involved.

Kosky’s “associative dreamscape” production triumphs in bringing highly theatrical elements to make this Biblical oratorio both serious and entertaining.

The entire cast, orchestra, and dancers have clearly “bought into” Kosky’s ideas and bring fine singing, playing and dramatic commitment to Handel’s difficult score. This reviewer is not the biggest fan of Handel, but here I found both musical and dramatic pleasures.

  • Krunoslav

    Well described, but on the small screen I found this smart staging- which may well have been very compelling seen live- prtetty heavy handed ( tough several scenes are moving)- and Kosky encouraged the usual currently de rigeur unmusical shouting, grunting ( and in Saul’s case, frequent verbal ad-libbing), as if this were a naturalistic action film.

  • redbear

    My view: the arrival of “advanced staging” resulted in a very important increase in visibility of Handel (and other Baroque composers). Years ago you almost never saw anything on stage and when you did, it involved a single Greek column, diaphanous gowns and immovable singers. There is a story behind the often static stories that can be inventively told. Now you have an audience so that the Paris Opera can open their season with a Baroque opera you never heard of.

    • Hang on, I’d already seen it in Brussels!

      • But I’d say the musical revival took off before the “advanced staging”, and the tercentenaries in the early 80s gave an important boost in both areas.

    • Krunoslav

      Your straw man pillar-and-toga staging does not describe the 1966 NYCO GIULIO CESARE as seen in 1980, not their glitzy ALCINA for Vaness in 1983, nor the Met’s acrobat-laden 1984 RINALDO, nor the IMENEO I saw in Carmel in 1985 (with Patricia Schuman, fabulous), nor San Fran’s ORLANDO with Horne, Masterson and Gall the same year, nor the Wadsworth XERXES I first saw in 1996 in Boston, nor Glimmmerglass’s 1998 PARTENOPE with Saffer and Daniels…

      But other than that I agree *absolutely*.

      • Armerjacquino

        And on this side of the pond, the Hytner/ENO XERXES from 1985 which was one of those rare opera productions that had non-opera lovers scrambling for tickets out of FOMO.

        • Hytner also did Giulio Cesare at the Paris Opera in the 80s, a very influential production, so it seems to me, or if not, at least one that foresaw the route many subsequent ones would take (e.g. the more famous Glyndebourne one).

    • grimoaldo2

      I have heard of it.
      Thank you Henson for the interesting review of this magnificent work.

    • simonelvladtepes

      The “advanced staging” is sometimes so good (and advanced) that I want to turn the sound off and just watch the video. I failed in trying to make myself enjoy Handel’s operas and hope they will disappear, together with those disgusting high tenors (countertenors and such). Sorry, I honestly don’t mean to inflame, but there is a significant but quiet cohort of us who have not been able to adjust to this baroque wave. I’m not proud of it, but that’s the way it is.

      • Krunoslav

        Silent Majority rhetoric! :)

      • grimoaldo2

        “I failed in trying to make myself enjoy Handel’s operas and hope they will disappear, together with those disgusting high tenors (countertenors and such).”
        There are plenty of people who detest opera of every kind and all operatic voices, not just “disgusting” countertenors. You can make them disappear for yourself simply by not listening to them or going to see operas you do not enjoy. I do not understand though why you hope music and singers you do not like will be taken away from those of us who do enjoy it and them.

        • simonelvladtepes

          I love the edit function on DISQUS.

  • Porgy Amor

    Thank you, Henson. I really enjoyed reading this, and it made me more interested in seeing something I probably would bypass just because of what it is That is a strong cast.

  • rhinestonecowgirl
  • Rob NYNY

    “(E)eschews any attempt at realism … .”

    Yes, because the whole problem with oratorios is their excessive realism.