George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Saul (1738)
Christopher Purves (Saul / Apparition of Samuel); Iestyn Davies (David); Lucy Crowe (Merab); Sophie Bevan (Michal); Paul Appleby (Jonathan); Benjamin Hulett (Abner / High Priest / Amalekite / Doeg); John Graham-Hall (Witch of Endor)
rec. Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex, England, August 2015
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Ivor Bolton
Film Director: François Roussilon
NTSC. All Regions. Dolby Digital Surround Sound OPUS ARTE OA1216D DVD [185:00]
Barrie Kosky’s operatic treatment of Saul was a conspicuous critical success at Glyndebourne’s 2015 season. Few would seriously question the propriety of staging the Biblical epics that are Handel’s oratorios, and the theatrical tendencies are especially overt in this, the longest and most ambitious setting of English words by any composer at that point in time, when most of Handel’s other great oratorios lay in the future. The unusual musical colours called for in this work are superbly well realised, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment bringing their musical imagination to bear in the parts for carillon, trombones, kettle drums – which Handel originally sourced from the Tower of London for the work’s premiere – and an organ, which pops up on stage in Glyndebourne’s production and revolves whilst James McVinnie performs a lengthy interlude at the opening of the second part.
Kosky’s ‘extravagant minimalism’ is well adapted to realising the dramatic possibilities of the score as well as the moments of quieter contemplation. The work’s Baroque provenance is echoed in the colourful costumes of the cast, generally inspired by the 18th century, along with the lavish banquet set out for much of the first part in celebration of David’s triumph over Goliath, and the dance choreography in some of the choruses. Some may feel that the latter goes somewhat too far, but there is otherwise very little else in the way of sets or props and so the production ensures that attention is secured upon the drama among the chief characters, without unnecessary distraction. Fortunately their acting and musical abilities are generally excellent.
Christopher Purves’s portrayal of Saul’s descent into madness is compelling and disturbing, though on occasion one may feel that his singing of the part could have been more menacing or ferocious. His interpretation also sometimes issues in more of a half-spoken account of the music which does, perhaps, complement Saul’s psychological disintegration, but this seems to be a trait of Purves’s singing more generally as also evidenced in his recent Don Giovanni for ENO. In contrast Iestyn Davies maintains utmost purity and steadiness of tone as David, seen by the Israelites at first in Kosky’s production as an outsider, almost an animal, to be feared or approached with caution, rather than their heroic saviour. Davies’s consistently unflustered performance creates a figure of mysterious charisma who exerts an entrancing influence upon the family of Saul – not least upon his son Jonathan, and this production makes explicit their latent homo-erotic relationship which is referred to in the Bible. Davies’s approach is flexible enough to exude the quiet intensity of ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ to quell Saul’s ravings, and also to remain calm in the face of the king’s threats in ‘At persecution I can laugh’.
Paul Appleby is a lyrical, expressive Jonathan in sympathetically characterising his devotion to David, offsetting the contrasting attitude of his two sisters - Sophie Bevan’s radiant but innocent Michal as she tells of her love for David, and Lucy Crowe’s suitably haughty Merab who looks down upon the lowly-born shepherd boy as an unsuitable partner in marriage. Benjamin Hulett proves commendably versatile in taking up the amalgamation of the parts of Abner, High Priest, Amalekite, and Doeg as a freakishly clown-like figure, commenting upon the action. Kosky sees parallels between the story of Saul and that of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and so this collation of roles would seem to serve the oratorio in the same manner as the Fool in the latter. Kosky also ascribes the dysfunctional nature of the families at the centre of both dramas to the lack of a mother-figure in each, and so makes the Witch of Endor as a sort of perverted surrogate for Saul as he consults her, and sucks at her wizened breasts to gain knowledge and foresight. As usual it is taken by a tenor, John Graham-Hall giving the part the sinister drawl that it requires.
On the whole the performance benefits from the presence and energy of a live rendition: particularly impressive is the dynamism sustained throughout the sequence of mainly choral numbers near the beginning of the first part as it then culminates in a fugal ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, and again at the very end of the work as the tension mounts towards the conclusion. On occasion the chorus sound just a little unfocussed as attention to the more elaborate choreography perhaps undermines absolute precision in more complex contrapuntal textures, but elsewhere they are emphatic and responsive to the dramatic situation, such as in their sullen ‘Mourn Israel’ which laments the wastefulness of war. Ivor Bolton’s alert and usually brisk-paced direction adds further impetus and urgency to the performance, though without driving the music too hard and working harmoniously with the action on stage.
Altogether this is a fine piece of musical theatre and the DVD recording picks up just about as much glamour and nuance as is it is possible to convey using the comparatively limited focus of cameras. In an additional ten minute feature, Kosky and Purves reflect on their realisation of the work’s theme of madness.