Saul, Glyndebourne, GFO, July 2015Posted on 30 July 2015
When Handel first produced this oratorio in 1738 the audience would have been completely au fait with the Biblical story of Saul, the king of a people previously presided over by judges and prophets such as Samuel, who anointed him as their first king. He also anointed David as his successor, but in the oratorio Saul is unaware of this and of his own disobedience to God in sparing the Amalekites and taking their possessions. The mental illness plaguing him is sent by God. He is doomed, and we the audience witness his Lear-like disintegration.
To put this on stage, Glyndebourne brought in Barrie Kosky, whose 2011 production of Castor and Pollux at the ENO involved prurient excesses that I criticised in my review at the time. Yet apart from the big kiss between David and Jonathan, Saul’s forcing a kiss on his daughter Merab, and the lactic feeding of Saul by the witch of Endor, this production avoided such excess and enhanced the music with glorious choreography for the chorus and six dancers. In a concert setting the chorus would be reading their complex, sometimes fugue-like parts from music sheets whereas on stage with the vast variety of movement given them by the director and his choreographer Otto Pichler, their performance was extraordinary. Outstanding in fact.
The choreography for the dancers was simple — plenty of balancés — but done with such panache that the dancers and chorus in their Georgian costumes brought huge joy to a tale whose serious side would have resonated strongly with audiences at the time Charles Jennens wrote the libretto. He himself was an upholder of the deposed Stuart line, but this take on the legitimacy of Kingship provided support for both Hanoverians and Stuarts. By setting it the way he has, Barrie Kosky and his designer Katrin Lea Tang have brilliantly emphasised the 17th century concern with a Biblical story that is now largely ignored.
With the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment so musically and enthusiastically conducted by Ivor Bolton, the singers delivered marvellous performances. Lucy Crowe and Sophie Bevan as Saul’s daughters Merab and Michal produced a marvellous acid and alkali contrast, while young American tenor Paul Appleby as a gentle and loving Jonathan contrasted with the robust power of Benjamin Hulett as a court jester-like figure with animal feet and grotesquely hairy legs, taking multiple roles.
Counter-tenor Iestyn Davies as David delivered wonderful light and shade. His powerful entry aria, “O king, your favours with delight …” was a knockout, yet he produced marvellously soft singing when appropriate. Performances of the whole cast showed huge energy and commitment, none more so than Christopher Purves as Saul. His riveting portrayal of this irascible and unpredictable king had vocal power and diction in spades, and it was a pleasure to hear singing of such clarity from the whole cast as to render surtitles almost superfluous.
An odd production to be sure, but stunning and hugely engaging.
Performances continue on various dates until August 29 — for details click here.