|Handel's Saul at Glyndebourne - Iestyn Davies, Sophie Bevan, Benjamin Hulett & ensemble - photo Bill Cooper|
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 23 2015
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel's theatre of the mind to life on stage
|Paul Appleby, Iestyn Davies|
photo Bill Cooper
Handel's oratorio Saul was premiered in London in 1739. It has a libretto by Charles Jennens, who not only wrote the libretto for Messiah but was responsible for some of Handel's most remarkable dramatic oratorios. The piece was intended as theatre of the mind, though premiered in the theatre it was performed in concert but Handel's scores include stage directions clearly indicating the way his mind worked in these circumstances. What a piece like Saul gave him was a sense of real narrative clarity, this was a story everyone knew and which had a clear development from beginning, middle to end, very different from the convoluted scene based drama of the opera seria, where it was the effect of individual scenes which mattered rather than the (sometimes ludicrous) progression from scene to scene. Handel's response was a dramatic meditation on the story, sometimes action proceeds at lightening pace (in the Glyndebourne programme book Barrie Kosky talks of the way, freed from da capo arias, Handel sometimes write music of extraordinary concision), but then there will be a long chorus when the action is frozen and the chorus almost steps out of the drama to consider it, and talk about it to us.
This gives the director remarkable freedom, there is a lack of specificity about the dramaturgy which can be filled in many ways. Of course, there are problems; you have to find something to do during the long choruses with all those singers on stage, and something which has a dramatic coherence and does not look like decoration merely added in. In 2012 I saw two very different stagings of Handel's Jephtha (Frederic Wake Walker's at the Buxton Festival, and Katie Mitchell's at WNO) which showed quite how responses to the drama could vary.
|Christopher Purves, John Graham-Hall|
photo Bill Cooper
I say advisedly that this was a remarkable piece of theatre because though Handel's score was at the very core of the piece, Kosky had added two elements to it which gave the staging some of its specificity (and added the Marmite element too, you either loved or hated it with little in between).
First the sound, the whole piece had an extra aural sound-track ranging from the whoops and cries of the chorus, through the communal thumpings, bangings and shoutings, to the shouted extra dialogue and Saul's ravings. Some of this was a response to the drama going on in counter-point to the music, for instance when Saul presented Merab to David she was furious and Saul and Merab had an encounter which, not in the score, was performed in dumb-show but with the odd sound which intruded on the music. Also, there were many moments when you felt that Kosky did not find Handel's music quite enough, and needed to add something. The results added up to an extra aural component which was present enough for me to find unsatisfactory and disturbing. If you listen to a radio broadcast of the performance then you are likely to find it slightly strange at times.
The evening opened with a series of visual coups. First the overture was played with the curtain down, with just a huge bloody head of Goliath visible, definitely a big plus point. Then as the curtain opened we saw Iestyn Davies as David, stripped to the waist, bloodied and clearly traumatised, then suddenly the rear curtain rose to reveal a huge table set for a feast (like the 16th century Dutch still life printed in the programme book), on which the chorus was sitting and standing. For the opening sequence the chorus moved, in stylised way on this table and then the ensemble developed with the dancers coming on. Costumes were neo-baroque, creating an exotic, slightly a-historical feel and in the huge wigs and overdone white make-up, creating a sense of parody too.
Rossini's Guillaume Tell). The dinner interval was after the Act Two duet for David and Michal (O fairest of ten thousand fair) and its subsequent chorus. The second half opened the symphony and formed a clear divide with the second part as the dark part, opening in darkness with a field of candles and with the performers now dressed in black.
Though the visual language for the production was strong and pervasive, and at times I found it to be hyper-active, Kosky was responding to the music and when demanded gave us simplicity. David's singing of his aria to sooth Saul, and then quietly cradling him whilst the harp played, or the Dead March performed with a stage strewn with bodies but no other accompanying action. And whatever you thought about the visual language, Kosky drew some truly remarkable performances from his cast.
Christopher Purves' account of the title role was truly Lear-like, as he depicted Saul's complete descent into madness. The occasional mad episodes in the first part turning into complete ravings in the second. It was a truly fearsome and mesmerising performance, and Purves was gripping in his singing of Handel's music (Saul hardly gets a proper aria, the role is almost all recitative and arioso). But the performance came at some cost to the music, as Purves created the sense of madness by distorting the vocal line (thankfully only occasionally), and by adding extra spoken contributions to create intense theatre.
photo Bill Cooper
Lucy Crowe made Merab a far more interesting character than can sometimes happen, and Crowe's plangent tones, thrilling and beautiful yet extremely calculated, meant that even when at her most vicious we responded to Merab in a way. The bleached plangency and technical perfection of Crowe's performance of Merab's music ensured that the contrast with the two sisters was played up as Sophie Bevan's Michal was all bubbly, running-around excitement. From the first moment Bevan set eyes on Davies, it was clear that Michal was obsessed with David and Bevan really brought this over. She was a complete delight in the arias, bringing a real sense of charm.
The young American lyric tenor, Paul Appleby was new to me. He brought a strong sense of interior drama to Jonathan, he too was very taken with Iestyn Davies' David from the first moment and their relationship was developed and played out very clearly. In that sense he made a fine component to the drama, but Jonathan is perhaps an underwritten role and Appleby did not manage to make the music really count. He sang effectively, but without the specificity of the other performers and I have to confess that I found his phrasing a bit lumpy at times.
photo Bill Cooper
Thankfully the role of the Witch of Endor was cast with a man, as it should be, and John Graham-Hall brought a wealth of experience to the role. Kosky seems to have seen the scene in Lear-like blasted heath terms. By now Christopher Purves' Saul was stripped to his boxer shorts and John Graham-Hall's witch appeared out of the ground and was an old crone also stripped to the waist with huge pendulous breasts on which Saul sucked, and the voice of Samuel spoke through Saul so that Purves sang both roles. It created an incredible piece of theatre from what is one of the strongest scenes in the oratorio.
The hard working chorus was amazing, singing Handel's taxing, large-scale choruses with both strength and expressiveness. For the more serious ones, such as the big jealously on, their range of movement was restricted as Kosky clearly wanted us to concentrate on the music and there was a great deal to enjoy. For the livelier choruses in Act One we were treated to the sight of them dancing and singing, and this did on occasion cause some instability in the ensemble, but overall this was a powerful, strongly sung account of one of Handel's finest oratorio choruses.
The organ solo in the symphony which opened part two was performed by James McVinne, on-stage and costumed playing a chamber organ on a platform spinning round in the midst of the field of candles - just one of the visual images which was inexplicable yet stunning. In the pit the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with continuo from Luise Buchberger (cello), Chi-Chi Nwanoku (bass), Paula Chateauneuf (theorbo), Luke Green (harpsichord) and Bernard Robertson (organ), were directed from the harpsichord with aplomb by Ivor Bolton. He drew strong, characterful playing from the orchestra and the work gave plenty of scope for individuals to shine, but also clearly gloried in the varied sounds of Handel's orchestra.
|Christopher Purves and ensemble - Handel's Saul at Glyndebourne - photo Bill Cooper|
This review also appears in OperaToday.Com.
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- Fascinating but flawed Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco at Buxton - Opera review
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- Lesser known but rewarding: Palestrina's Missa L'Homme Arme from the Sixteen - Cd review
- Brilliant exploration: Romaria: Choral Music from Brazil - CD review
- Thoughtful Bastille Day: Arcangelo at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
- Charm overload: Music for Piano and Harp - CD review
- Finely satisfying: Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera - Opera review
- An alternative view: Iberian Colours from the Maria Camahort Quartet - CD review
- Intriguing timbral world of Matthew Whiteside in Dichroic Light - CD review