Saul

 

Handel Saul oratorio (tagged opera here) to libretto by Charles Jennens. Directed 2015 by Barrie Kosky at Glyndebourne. Stars Christopher Purves (Saul), Iestyn Davies (David), Lucy Crowe (Merab), Sophie Bevan (Michal), Paul Appleby (Jonathan), Benjamin Hulett (Abner/High Priest/Amalekite/Doeg), and John Graham-Hall (Witch of Endor). Dancers are Otis-Cameron Carr, Robin Gladwin, Ellyn Hebron, Thomas Herron, Merry Holden, and Edwin Ray. Ivor Bolton conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Leader Alison Bury) and The Glyndebourne Chorus (Chorus Master Jeremy Bines). Solo organ by James McVinnie; cello continuo by Luise Buchberger; bass continuo by Chi-Chi Nwanoku; theorbo continuo by Paula Chateauneuf; harpsichord continuo by Luke Green; organ continuo by Bernard Robertson. Designs by Katrin Lea Tag; choreography by Otto Pichler; lighting by Joachim Klein. Directed for TV by François Roussillon; produced by George Bruell. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A+

This was a smash hit at the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival and another triumph for Christopher Purves, one of the most versatile opera singers working today. The print critics were ecstatic. Richard Wigmore, in the April 2018 Gramophone at page 132, reviews all past Saul recordings and lauds this Glyndebourne video in which "Purves gives yet another towering performance in a production fusing riotous extravagance with profound psychological truth."

In our first screenshot we see the astonishment of the people after David (Iestyn Davies) slew Goliath with a single stone and cut off his giant head. On your far right is King Saul (Christopher Purves) with the long hair. The young man on your left is Jonathan (Paul Appleby) Saul’s son. The young woman in mint green is Saul’s daughter Michal (Sophie Bevan) who is right now falling in love with David:

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And here’s a full-stage view of the phantasmagorical “extravagant minimalist” mise-en-scène dreamed up by Kosky and team for this show, complete with contemporary style dancing :

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David was a humble shepherd who played the harp to quiet his sheep and learned to use a slingshot to kills wolves approaching his flock. Both of these skills play key roles in David’s unlikely rise from farm servant to the throne of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. He just killed Goliath with his sling and stone. Later he will play the harp to soothe Saul’s violent and unpredictable temper. Saul has no idea who this young hero is:

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Even though David is a nobody, Jonathan feels strongly attracted to him and swears that special bond of friendship of one soldier to another:

Saul is wildly acting out again, but David is able to calm him down. On your far left is Saul’s older daughter Merab (Lucy Crowe), who is ready for marriage. Saul offers Merab to David, but Merab rejects the marriage because David is low-born:

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Saul is conflicted. He admires the newly appeared hero. But he is also envious and fearful of what this stranger might do:

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Today we would call Saul an extreme short-cycle manic depressive. Saul orders Jonathan to kill David. But Jonathan refuses the order!

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Saul caves into pressure from his court and awards David with marriage to Michal, whom David prefers to the haughty Merab. But Saul’s decision is not pure. He plans to make David an army commander and send him to his death in battle with the Philistines. For even the contemplation of this terrible perfidy, God will abandon Saul and seal his doom:

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As David’s statute grows and Saul destroys himself, Merab has a change of heart. in the most beautiful aria in the oratorio, Merab confesses to God her sins of pride and prejudice:

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In honor of Merab’s newly-found righteousness, Handel treats us to an organ concerto:

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In a moment of mental calm, Saul acknowledges his sins and recognizes that he has severed his relationship to God. But his remorse (unlike that of Merab) is too little too late:

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Cut off from heaven, Saul seeks solace from hell. He consults the Witch of Endor:

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Saul wants to talk to the dead prophet Samuel:

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The ghost of Samuel takes over Saul’s body to speak. Samuel foretells that Saul and Jonathan will die in battle with the Philistines. David will ascend to the throne. David will have a troubled but successful reign and become a noted figure in 3 great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:

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Samuel’s prophecy comes true. Near front and center below are the bodies and severed heads of Saul and Jonathan:

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From these few screenshots and the YouTube clips below, you can see how Kosky’s extravagant minimalism invigorates this rather simple story line. And if you have read through this review, you probably have a good idea about the beauty of Handel’s writing for singers, the chorus, and the early-music orchestra. All members of this cast are impressive as to singing and acting. Ivor Bolton’s performance with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is vivid, clear, and well balanced to the voices on stage.

What you can’t tell much about is the glorious poetry provided by Charles Jennens in his Bible-inspired libretto. For native English speakers it’s a thrill to hear this presented in a language we can almost effortlessly understand. (We still use the English subtitles just to be sure we don’t miss something important.) The video file of François Roussillon, impeccable throughout, is state-of-the-art for 2K Blu-ray. All this leads to another A+ grade for the wizards of Glyndebourne.

Here are some excellent trailer clips: