Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Hans Werner Henze : Kammermusik 1958

"....In lieblicher Bläue". Landmark new recordings of Hans Werner Henze Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesänge and Kammermusik 1958 from the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin, with Andrew Staples, Markus Weidmann, Jürgen Ruck and Daniel Harding.

Written on Skin: the Melos Sinfonia take George Benjamin's opera to St Petersburg

As I approach St Cyprian’s Church in Marylebone, musical sounds which are at once strange and sensuous surf the air. Inside I find seventy or so instrumentalists and singers nestled somewhat crowdedly between the pillars of the nave, rehearsing George Benjamin’s much praised 2012 opera, Written on Skin.

Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Classical Opera celebrated 20 years of music-making and story-telling with a characteristically ambitious and eclectic sequence of musical works at the Barbican Hall. Themes of creation and renewal were to the fore, and after a first half comprising a variety of vocal works and short poems, ‘Classical Opera’ were succeeded by their complementary alter ego, ‘The Mozartists’, in the second part of the concert for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony - a work described by Page as ‘in many ways the most iconic work in the repertoire’.

Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017

Bampton Classical Opera’s third Young Singers’ Competition takes place this autumn, culminating in a public final at Holywell Music Room, Oxford on November 19. This biennial competition was first launched in 2013 to celebrate the company’s 20th birthday, and is aimed at identifying the finest emerging young opera singers currently working in the UK.

Peter Kellner announced as winner of 2018 Wigmore Hall/Independent Opera Voice Fellowship

Independent Opera (IO) was very present at the Wigmore Hall last week. On Thursday 5 October, IO announced 26 year old Slovakian bass Peter Kellner as the winner of the 2018 Wigmore Hall/IO Voice Fellowship, a two-year award of £10,000 plus professional mentoring from IO and the Wigmore Hall. A graduate of the Konzervatórium Košice Timonova and the Mozarteum University Salzburg, Peter is currently a member of Oper Graz in Austria where later this season he will sing the title role of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Colline in Puccini’s La bohème.

Back to Baroque and to the battle lines with English Touring Opera

Romeo and Juliet, Rinaldo and Armida, Ramadès and Aida: love thwarted by warring countries and families is a perennial trope of literature, myth and history. Indeed, ‘Love and war are all one,’ declared Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote, a sentiment which seems to be particularly exemplified by the world of baroque opera with its penchant for plundering Classical Greek and Roman myths for their extreme passions and conflicts. English Touring Opera’s 2017 autumn tour takes us back to the Baroque and back to the battle-lines.

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice opened the 2017–18 season at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Michelle DeYoung, Mahler Symphony no 3 London

The Third Coming ! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall with Michelle DeYoung, the Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It was live streamed worldwide, an indication of just how important this concert was, for it marks the Philharmonia's 34-year relationship with Salonen.

King Arthur at the Barbican: a semi-opera for the 'Brexit Age'

Purcell’s and Dryden’s King Arthur: or the British Worthy presents ‘problems’ for directors. It began life as a propaganda piece, Albion and Albanius, in 1683, during the reign of Charles II, but did not appear on stage as King Arthur until 1691 when William of Orange had ascended to the British Throne to rule as William III alongside his wife Mary and the political climate had changed significantly.

Elder conducts Lohengrin

There have been dozens of capable, and more than capable, recordings of Lohengrin. Among the most-often praised are the Sawallisch/Bayreuth (1962), Kempe (1963), Solti (1985), and Abbado (1991). Recording a major Wagner opera involves heavy costs that a record company may be unable to recoup.

Anne Schwanewilms sings Schreker, Schubert, Liszt and Korngold

On a day when events in Las Vegas cast a shadow over much of the news this was not the most comfortable recital to sit through for many reasons. The chosen repertoire did, at times, feel unduly heavy - and very Germanic - but it was also unevenly sung.

The Life to Come: a new opera by Louis Mander and Stephen Fry

It began ‘with a purely obscene fancy of a Missionary in difficulties’. So E.M. Forster wrote to Siegfried Sassoon in August 1923, of his short story ‘The Life to Come’ - the title story of a collection that was not published until 1972, two years after Forster’s death.

‘Never was such advertisement for a film!’: Thomas Kemp and the OAE present a film of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier was premiered at the Dresden Semperoper on 26th January 1911. Almost fifteen years to the day, on 10th January 1926, the theatre hosted another Rosenkavalier ‘premiere’, with the screening of a silent film version of the opera, directed by Robert Wiene - best known for his expressionistic masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The two-act scenario had been devised by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and the screening was accompanied by a symphony orchestra which Strauss himself conducted.

Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

No sooner had I drafted my review of Simon Mayr’s Medea in Corinto,

Aida opens the season at ENO

Director Phelim McDermott’s new Aida at ENO seems to have been conceived more in terms of what it will look like rather than what the opera is or might be ‘about’. And, it certainly does look good. Designer Tom Pye - with whom McDermott worked for ENO’s Akhnaten last year (alongside his other Improbable company colleague, costume designer Kevin Pollard) - has again conjured striking tableaux and eye-catching motifs, and a colour scheme which balances sumptuous richness with shadow and mystery.

La Traviata in San Francisco

A beautifully sung Traviata in British stage director John Copley’s 1987 production, begging the question is this grand old (30 years) production the SFO mise en scène for all times.

The Judas Passion: Sally Beamish and David Harsent offer new perspectives

Was Judas a man ‘both vile and justifiably despised: an agent of the Devil, or a man who God-given task was to set in train an event that would be the salvation of Humankind’? This is the question at the heart of Sally Beamish’s The Judas Passion, commissioned jointly by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia Baroque of San Francisco.

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

As The Tallis Scholars processed onto the Cadogan Hall platform, for the opening concert of this season’s Choral at Cadogan series, there were some unfamiliar faces among its ten members - or faces familiar but more usually seen in other contexts.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2017, Millennium Park, Chicago

As a prelude to the 2017-18 season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, during the last weekend. A number of those who performed in this event will be featured in roles during the coming season.

A Verlaine Songbook

Back in the LP days, if a singer wanted to show some sophistication, s/he sometimes put out an album of songs by famous composers set to the poems of one poet: for example, Phyllis Curtin’s much-admired 1964 disc of Debussy and Fauré songs to poems by Verlaine, with pianist Ryan Edwards (available now as a CD from VAI).

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

George Frideric Handel: Saul, Oratorio in three acts (HWV 53)
22 Aug 2005

HANDEL: Saul

Any new recording of Handel under the baton of Rene Jacobs has to be greeted with both respect and interest, even if the absolute need for another recording of this well-represented oratorio is debatable. Perhaps some Handel scholars would argue with that and are still discussing the precedence of the current available recordings — the older Gardiner, the Neumann, or the more recent McCreesh for instance. So, one presumes, this recording of "Saul" on the Harmonia Mundi label must be intended to either trump those three or to at least offer a viable fourth choice for those who prefer their Handel oratorios as complete as possible. And a plus point is that the entire work is squeezed onto just 2 CDs with a total running time of 2 hrs 30 minutes, accompanied by some stimulating liner notes by Pierre Degott that are both informative and absorbing for the non-specialist consumer.

George Frideric Handel: Saul, Oratorio in three acts (HWV 53).

Henry Waddington (bass); Finnur Bjarnason (tenor); Michael Slattery (tenor); Rosemary Joshua (soprano); Emma Bell (soprano); Lawrence Zazzo (countertenor); Jeremy Ovenden (tenor); Gidon Saks (baritone). RIAS-Kammerchor; Concerto Koeln; Rene Jacobs (dir.) (full texts in English, French and German)

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901877.78 [2CDs]

 

Does it succeed in surpassing the current competition? Instrumentally there's certainly a case for saying so. For instance, in the opening symphony we are treated to bright jewelled textures, with true Allegro tempi and some wonderful sound balancing work by the engineers in the Larghetto and Andante sections between the winds and strings where every instrument is faithfully reported. This level of playing and recording continues throughout. The 40-strong Concerto Koeln sound as good as one rightly expects of them under this director, with perhaps only the winds and brass shining a little brighter than the rest of this exemplary crew. There was one small detail that I especially enjoyed: the carillon is a delight in the opening of scene 3 where its crystalline notes contrast delightfully with the chorus's heavier wedges of sound. I also relished a relatively elevated and clear-textured "Dead March" — no lumpen morbidity here, rather a majestic and calm portrayal of inevitable death that leads inexorably into the chorus's smoothly-sung Elegy. Jacobs is somewhat renowned for taking a degree of liberty with some works, but here I found little that jarred (at least on the instrumental side) and indeed I heard a piece of music new to me in a recitative and accompagnato in Act 1, ably sung by the High Priest (Michael Slattery). Presumably this was one of those "pick and mix" elements that Mr. Handel was prone to add or delete depending on circumstances.

Vocally, I'm not so sure that this recording achieves to the same extent, but it certainly offers a rewarding alternative, and one's final choice of recording (if choice one must make) will surely rest on subjective preferences for certain voices, and certain elements of choral production. Indeed, my first reaction to the 36-strong RIAS-Kammerchor's opening lines was one of slight disappointment at the diction and the English ... a definite Germanic vowel sound is evident and it doesn't help a distinctly muddy delivery of the faster lines which continued right through to the final chorus of Act Three. I found myself straining to catch the words — and that was with the libretto to hand. No such problems with any of the soloists however: all eight are crisp and clear throughout.

If I had to give a "best in show" award to a soloist, it would have to be to Emma Bell as Saul's feisty daughter Merab. In her first character-defining aria "What abject thoughts....." she displays a wonderful mix of spot-on coloratura and warm incisive tone with some quite thrilling ornamentation which pins the listener to the seat and declares: this lady is not for trifling with. However, as her character softens, or at least expands, we can luxuriate in one of the most gorgeously expressive soprano voices singing today. She is simply superb in the quietly contemplative "Author of peace" where a feeling of controlled power is complemented by a rich long line and exquisite, minimal, decorations which illustrate perfectly her gradual change of heart.

Jeremy Ovenden sings the part of Jonathan with a no-nonsense, crisp characterisation which from the start tells us this man is no puppet prince, but one of honour and courage. As ever in this work, one wishes that he didn't disappear as early as he does. If Ovenden's more thoughtful passages lack a certain elegance of line perhaps better found in other recordings, this is still a very convincing performance. His dramatic sense is evident — one can hear this quite clearly in Act Two, for instance, in his resolute, if intimidated, confrontation with the bullying King Saul as he attempts to protect his friend and thus incurs the royal wrath.

The role of that friend, the young warrior David, is sung by Lawrence Zazzo. This American countertenor has been working extensively in Handel productions on the continent of Europe in the past few years so it's not difficult to see why Jacobs chose him for this recording. Vocally, he seems to occupy a place somewhere between the radically-different styles of the two recent starry "Davids" of note, Andreas Scholl on the Archiv recording with McCreesh and David Daniels' live portrayals in Edinburgh and Munich, but without their sheer class across the board, or quite yet establishing a truly personal sound of his own. He has a surprising tendency to shrillness in the faster, louder passages, as on the plus side his voice is warm and elegant in slower passages and very sweet in the highest registers. If he doesn't sound completely at ease with some of the ornaments he sings then maybe it's because some are definitely quirky, if not downright contentious: have a listen to the final repeats of the words "his wounded soul" from the aria "O Lord, whose mercies numberless" in Act 1, if you don't believe me. However, this is still a performance of merit, questionable ornamentation notwithstanding.

Having enjoyed her live performance in Munich so much, I was just a little disappointed in this Michal of Rosemary Joshua's — perhaps her lighter-hued voice is just ill-matched with that of Bell's and comes off worst in comparison. For all her undoubted technical mastery of the genre and supremely elegant singing, I felt this was not Joshua at her very best — something was lacking. Having said that, a slightly below-par Joshua is still a force to be reckoned with and she is still a Michal-of-choice for many Handelians. Just listen to the way she fashions her voice to reflect her resolute defence of David and defiance of Saul's death threats in "No, no let the guilty tremble" — regained determination, line, crisp diction and heartfelt emotion, all found from within the dancing rhythms of Handel's music and Jennen's text.

In the title role — always one dependent on strong recitative singing with so few actual airs to display one's gifts — Gidon Saks is a worthy choice and his obvious experience in making words count shines through, although I'm not sure he quite "carries" the true spirit of this unhappy king in an expressive sense. One gets the feeling of rage, and jealousy, but not so much of his decline into mental disorder in the face of the irrational powers driving him from within. He also tends to sing the music line by line, rather than making sense of the poetry — phrases just don't flow naturally and there are odd pauses between words where there should not be. Because of this tendency, I have to admit to preferring the Saul of, for instance, either Neal Davies or Alistair Miles.

Three impressive young singers shine brightly in the remaining lesser, but always dramatically important, six roles of High Priest and Witch (Michael Slattery), Doeg and Samuel (Henry Waddington), and the Amalekite and Abner (Finnur Bjarnason). Of the three, Michael Slattery makes the biggest impression, if only for the sheer dramatic range of his singing. Not all will approve of his almost pantomime-witch portrayal of Saul's medium to Samuel — his suave and robust tenor of the High Priest is contorted into a lisping, almost falsetto simpering sound which may be a step too far for some although it certainly worked in context for me. In contrast, the bass-baritone of Henry Waddington is steadily consistent and he sings Samuel's doom-laden air of retribution to the despairing king with appropriate gravitas and textual awareness. The deaths of Saul and his son are foretold with a gentle decrescendo, all the more chilling in its subtlety, on the final words "The Lord hath said it: He will make it good."

So, we have another excellent modern recording of Handel's "Saul" under the always intelligent and responsive direction of Rene Jacobs, even if it doesn't quite — by virtue of some variable vocal solo work — manage to establish a new benchmark for this most dramatic of oratorios.

© Sue Loder 2005

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):