The latest Handel oratorio to be given the operatic treatment by Glyndebourne is Saul, which played in 2015 in a production by Australian Barrie Kosky. It’s quite a remarkable work. The libretto, as so often the work of Charles Jennens, takes considerable liberties with the version in Samuel and incorporates obvious nods to both King Lear and Macbeth as well as more contemporary events. David’s Act 3 lament on the death of Saul, for instance, clearly invokes the execution of Charles I. What emerges is a very classic tragedy. Saul, the Lord’s anointed, is driven by jealousy and insecurity deeper and deeper into madness and degradation and, ultimately, death. This is the basic narrative arc of the piece.
Kosky’s production is quite distinctive. Sets are basic, even minimalistic, but the stage is full of people most of the time so that, when it isn’t, there’s an intense focus on whoever is there. It’s also very movement intensive. Dancers are combined with the soloists and chorus who are all expected to do a lot physically. One imagines some of the soloists must have had dance training. Benjamin Hulett, who multi-tasks in a number of small roles is a standout in this department. The work of the chorus is seriously impressive too. I can’t see this production being put on at La Scala! There’s a curious aesthetic in play too. Costuming ranges from 18th century to sort of modern and make up from naturalistic to very exaggerated. It can be quite disconcerting. Koskie is also not afraid to be weird or shocking where the drama calls for it. Very early on there is a giant Goliath head on stage and, in his first sign of madness, Saul pokes one of the eyes out with David’s sling. It’s jarring but not nearly as much as the Witch of Endor scene. This is one of the creepiest things I have ever seen on an opera stage but it makes perfect sense. So, there’s always a stage picture; sometimes wildly extravagant, sometimes of stunning simplicity. In some ways it’s a bit reminiscent of Romeo Castellucci but really it’s a very individual approach.
Musically it’s a bit of an oddball. Parts sound like one has heard them in other Handel works and other bits are quite distinctive. I don’t think that there is a single tune that one would find oneself humming but the orchestration makes for some curious and memorable textures. It’s a pretty big orchestra by Handel standards with three keyboards; harpsichord, organ and carillon, in play. The last gives a most unusual colour to the music whenever it appears. There’s also some very forward looking writing for trombone. So interesting but curiously unmemorable.
There are some very fine performances. Chris Purves as Saul doesn’t have a lot of flashy singing to do so he needs to create the dramatic arc of Saul’s deterioration through other means. This he does astonishingly well. It’s a physical performance of a dramatic intensity one might expect more in straight theatre than opera. The best music goes to David, sung here by Iestyn Davies. He’s very fine and nowhere more than in the big Act 3 lament. It’s beautiful, stylish, Handelian singing. He’s matched by a fine performance by Paul Appleby in the tenor role of Jonathan. The ladies make an interesting contrasting pair. Lucy Crowe, vocally assured as ever, is really convincing as the stuck up bitch daughter Merab and her hauteur contrasts nicely with Sophie Bevan’s kinder, gentler and equally vocally solid Michal. It’s interesting that all the principals, while mostly singing with great beauty, are not afraid to produce growly, snarly noises when it makes sense. There’s actually quite a lot of “extraneous noise”, in the sense of stuff that’s not in the score, in this production. One of the differences between performing it as an opera rather than an oratorio I guess. There are two fine cameo performances; Benjamin Hulett, as already noted, and John Graham Hall as The Witch of Endor. I can’t describe his scene with Saul. It’s the stuff of nightmares and brilliantly performed. The chorus sing as well as they move, which is saying a lot, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ivor Bolton conducting, are just about ideal for this music.
Video direction is by François Roussillon and it’s as good as he usually is, which is to say top notch. He’s very sparing and judicious in his use of close ups. A good example would be a quick switch to a close up of David in the final scene which centres the scene emotionally where it should be without detracting from Kosky’s beautiful stage picture which he rapidly switches back to. On Blu-ray the picture is extremely good and the DTS-HD surround sound is pretty much as good as it gets. Extras include very useful interviews with Kosky, Purves and Bolton. The booklet contains another interview with Kosky plus a rather didactic essay on the work’s context. There’s also a synopsis but no track listing. Subtitle options are English, French, German and Korean.
I’m a fan of staging Handel’s English language oratorios and I found this one very worthwhile. Musically, Saul may not be Messiah or Theodora but it’s a skilful libretto that translates well to the stage and Kosky’s approach is quite different to other directors, Guth and Sellars for example, who have approached these works. Definitely worth a look.