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OT tussles and tensions

16 October 2015

Roderic Dunnett on Handel’s oratorio Saul fully staged

bill cooper

Unnerving start: Goliath’s head in the Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Saul, about to go on tour

Unnerving start: Goliath’s head in the Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Saul, about to go on tour

HANDEL’s Italian operas, such as Rinaldo, Xerxes, and Julius Caesar, have surged back into fashion, gaining such popularity that the search has widened to embrace stagings of his English sacred oratorios.

The warlike Jephtha had a vivid recent staging from Welsh National Opera. Even Messiah was staged by Deborah Warner at English National Opera, and in Vienna the same year. Handel’s favourite, Theodora (1750), about the noble young Christian from Alexandria and her converted Roman lover, martyred in AD 304, received a grisly staging by the American director Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne, whose excellence has become the touchstone for stagings of Handel oratorios since.

Now Glyndebourne has attacked a new target, Saul, the story (based on the book of Samuel) of the doomed and jealous first King of united Israel-Judah, who fell fighting the Philistines at the Battle of Mount Gilboa. The dramatic excitement stirred by this production, from the Australian director Barrie Kosky, currently Intendant of the Komische Opera Berlin, has won widespread accolades.

The good news is that Glyndebourne has included this nail-biting and thrilling Saul in its autumn tour, which starts at Glyndebourne and continues throughout November.

Why has this production drawn almost slavish acclaim that verges on hyperbole? The praise is justified. The concept of the staging is so vivid, consistent, and energised that, far from detracting from Handel’s original oratorio (first heard in January 1739, just three years before Messiah), it brings home the tussles and tensions as never before.

Much has been said about the beauty of Iestyn Davies’s singing of David, vocally an exquisite performance; but more could be said about the Jonathan of Paul Appleby (“Wealth and fortune I despise” . . . “No, no, cruel father, no”), a young American singer whose sensitive display of torn loyalties and refusal to abandon his crazed father lent much pathos to the evening.

Jonathan’s role on tour will fall to the tenor Benjamin Hulett, who has advanced to the front rank, and who made a spectacular success of the warlike Abner, the High Priest, and a captured Amalekite, whose roles were folded into some kind of bizarre and yet fluent master of ceremonies — whether apt or not, certainly beguiling and surreal. Indeed, six dancers added much to the narrative, all of it relevant.

The choruses provide key moments in the drama, never more so than the prescient “Envy! eldest born of hell!” Their first appearance, amassed on huge banquet tables littered with fruit and fowl, seemed more appropriate for a Philistine Feast than for triumphing Israelites, but the effect is startling and will make just as much impact on the tour, as will every shattering detail of Kosky’s beautifully managed, cleverly lit staging, which will be revived on tour by Donna Stirrup.

But the real tour de force of the production was that it puts the King himself centre stage. It is Saul’s rolling-eyed madness, his envy, and hysterics — he in effect issues a fatwah directed at David — that Charles Jennens, also the superlative librettist of Messiah, places at the heart of the drama.

The rot begins quite early, when Saul hears the Israelites dance and intone “Saul hath slain his thousands and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18.7). Saul’s madness is gnawing and terrifying: Kosky presents him as someone overcome with a form of devouring depression, who projects all his guilt and anger on to his young military rival. Christopher Purves, who sang Saul, needed tighter personal direction (as did all the leads, who seemed largely to improvise), but gave such an agonised, foaming, fury-driven performance, culminating in his and Jonathan’s deaths, that one was bowled over, first by terror, then by pity. The voice, and his delivery, were intoxicating.

The production started unnervingly with Goliath’s huge severed head; and near the end, those of Saul and Jonathan. This kind of consistency, especially when so ghoulish, makes Kosky’s production riveting. And so it will be on tour, when the countertenor Christopher Ainslie takes over from Davies, the role of Saul’s daughter Merab (a dazzling, almost coloratura offering from Lucy Crowe) is assumed by the comparably inspired Sarah Tynan, and the baritone Henry Waddington assumes one of his biggest challenges yet as Saul.

Ivor Bolton’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Glyndebourne was sensational. On tour, the equally masterly period-instrument conductor Laurence Cummings will hope to make the music’s drama live up to the dazzling Glyndebourne original.


Saul is at Glyndebourne three nights (24-30 October), and then tours to Canterbury (6 November), Milton Keynes (13 November), Norwich (20 November), and Plymouth (27 November).

For full tour details, see www.glyndebourne.com, or phone the box office: 01273 813813.

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