Spoiler Alert – Don’t read if you’re going to see Saul

18 Aug

I’m sorry.  I don’t see how I can write about the performance of Saul that I saw at Glyndebourne on 17th August without describing what I saw.  And half of the joy of it was the sheer exuberance and unexpectedness of the production.  If you’re going to see it or wanting to (and I recommend that you try to snap up whatever returns come up) or seeing it on the Tour, wait until you’ve seen it before reading below.

For those of you who don’t know the piece (and I’d heard it a couple of times on CD only), it begins after David has slain Goliath.  Saul is initially delighted and offers him the hand of his daughter Merab, who is not happy at the prospect.  But when it looks as though David may be more popular than him, Saul turns jealous and demands that his son, Jonathan, kill David.  Jonathan won’t kill his best friend.  Saul appears to relent and offers David the hand of his second daughter, Michal instead – that’s fine, they love each other.  In fact, he’s hoping that David will be killed by the Philistines.  That doesn’t happen and, maddened, he goes to the Witch of Endor who prophesies that Saul and Jonathan will be killed in battle and that David will become king of the Israelites.  That happens and the piece ends with mourning and the coronation of David.  In terms of twists and turns the plot isn’t that unlike many of Handel’s Italian operas.  What is different is the huge role for the chorus, the variety of different types of aria and the sheer lushness of the orchestration.

The first thing that becomes visible in Barry Kosky’s production is the head of Goliath.  Then you see David, exhausted, overwhelmed by what he has done and then, for the opening chorus, you see a vast table, filled with food and elaborately costumed courtiers with Saul at its centre and Abner its  court jester. It looks like a painted late Stuart cornucopia – and, with David in a modern suit, gently makes the political point of an out of date court.  The choreography is witty; the court is caricatured, Merab an ugly sister figure hating the prospect of washing David’s feet as the rest of the court fights to clean his battle-stained body.  Only David and Jonathan appear normal.  Then Saul’s decline begins and Christopher Purves portrays the unhinged king with utter conviction, stumbling round the stage, muttering, shouting, adding bits to the text, slowly disintegrating.  I remember his look of despair to the audience at the end of the first half (the break is about half way through Handel’s second part) and, during the Envy chorus, hands run over his face – an extraordinary depiction of the emotions going through it.

At the start of the second part, the tables have gone and all that you see is a stage filled with flickering candles.  Then, during the sinfonia, the chamber organ rises from the trap door and revolves, at quite a speed, while James McVinnie plays the solo quite extraordinarily.  It’s one of those of astonishing, virtuoso, baroque moments in the production, reminding you of an old cinema organ that played during the intermission, leaving you open-mouthed at the sheer exuberance of it all.

Things get nastier as the evening goes on.  Clothes come off and the scene with the witch is extraordinary – she comes out, bearded, just like Saul.  The witch has huge dugs from which Saul suckles to get the spirit of Samuel and the two of them walk off, in despair, like Lear and Gloucester.  The dead march is simply a picture of the dead Israelites on the battlefield with the heads of Saul and Jonathan.  David and Michal pour soil over them.  At the end David walks slowly downstage dressed as Saul was at the beginning, an outsider to the celebrations.

There are wonderful images – David and Jonathan, back to back, hands entwined. David cradling Saul, the sheer intimacy and intensity of the pictures.  It is astonishingly choreographed, every move and picture clear and certain.  You had the sense of every single person on the stage being absolutely of one mind and completely committed.  The energy was palpable and communicated directly to the audience.  After a Castor and Pollux that I simply didn’t get, this made me understand what the fuss about Kosky is about.  And it probably helped that he had the resources of Glyndebourne to get him there.

Then there was the outstanding musical performance.  Ivor Bolton is a specialist in this area and seemed entirely at one with the production.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on the same wonderful form that it was for Entfuhrung playing with passion and complete certainty.  I don’t think that Handel’s pure orchestral music has made as much sense to me before. or that I’ve admired the sheer intricacy of his sinfonias.

I’ve mentioned Christopher Purves.  It’s hard to imagine this performance without him (though Henry Waddington has been doing the role at some performances).  Maybe you could imagine the role more perfectly sung but against that there is the sheer intensity that he provides – his mutterings, wanderings and those looks, directly to the audience, where you can see the obsession and madness coming straight at you.

The rest of the cast was superb too.  Iestyn Davies was David and seems to be absolutely in his prime as a Handel counter tenor.  This was good as David Daniels in that first run of Theodora here.  The sheer beauty and firmness of tone, together with the virtuosity of his singing gave constant pleasure.  He acted the role really strongly, catching the integrity but also the sense of him being the outsider.

Paul Appleby made an excellent Jonathan, sincere, pleasing singing and obviously a very promising tenor who I’d very much like to hear in Mozart.  Sophie Bevan was a flashy Merab who managed her change of heart later on really well.  Lucy Crowe was also splendid as Michal.  Benjamin Hulett gave a virtuoso acting performance amalgamating a number of smaller roles into this court jester/chorus figure – sinister, satyr-like and eminently watchable.  He sang very well too – he’s promoted to Jonathan on the Tour which should be worth hearing.  As the witch, John Graham-Hall gave one of the outstanding cameos that you expect from him and made an impression completely out of proportion the size of the part.  It’s one of the great scenes in the piece and he and Purves made it horribly unforgettable – the intimacy of their embrace and staggering off together was mesmerising.

But the real star was the chorus.  It has a huge amount of work to do.  The music isn’t easy but they made it sound so – singing accurately, with perfect ensemble and great diction.  And they were running around, dancing, communicating directly to the audience.  They gave a complete virtuoso performance and, I would guess, had a marvellous time.

One half cavil and one question.  After three shows the summer which appeared to involve vast quantities of mock mud, perhaps it’s time for directors to give this particular trope a rest.  Secondly, I wonder how this will work on the Tour and in subsequent revivals.  This felt like one of those evenings that came as a result of a particular chemistry between director, cast and chorus.  How will it survive cast changes?  Will the incredible visual images all survive to the Tour?

So this was one of those exuberant, off-the-wall evenings that, every now and then, Glyndebourne brings off better than anyone else – in the tradition of the Kent Fairy Queen and Sellars Theodora.  It worked spectacularly well and the audience was caught up and hugely enthusiastic at the end.  After a series of interesting rather than great productions, it’s great to see Glyndebourne hit the jack-pot twice in a row with this and McVicar’s less exuberant, but equally polished and assured Entfuhrung.  It’s a great evening.  It’s now pretty much sold out for the Festival, but I’d strongly recommend trying to get a return and maybe they’ll get a similar magic on the tour.

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