Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Tosca in San Francisco

The story was bigger than its actors, the Tosca ritual was ignored. It wasn’t a Tosca for the ages though maybe it was (San Francisco’s previous Tosca production hung around for 95 years). P.S. It was an evening of powerful theater, and incidentally it was really good opera.

Fine performances in uneven War Requiem at the Concertgebouw

At the very least, that vehement, pacifist indictment against militarism, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, should leave the audience shaking a little. This performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra only partially succeeded in doing so. The cast credits raised the highest expectations, but Gianandrea Noseda, stepping in for an ailing Mariss Jansons and conducting the RCO for the first time, did not bring out the full potential at his disposal.

The Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

In their typical non-emphatic way, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips presented here a selection of English sacred music from the Eton Choirbook to Tallis. There was little to ruffle anyone’s feathers here, little in the way of overt ‘interpretation’ – certainly in a modern sense – but ample opportunity to appreciate the mastery on offer in this music, its remoteness from many of our present concerns, and some fine singing.

Dido and Aeneas: Academy of Ancient Music

“Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” Well, the spectral Queen of Carthage atop the poppy-strewn sarcophagus wasn’t quite yet “laid in earth”, but the act of remembering, and remembrance, duly began during the first part of this final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s Purcell trilogy at the Barbican Hall.

Poignantly human – Die Zauberflöte, La Monnaie

Mozart Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at La Monnaie /De Munt, Brussels, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, directed by Romeo Castellucci. Part allegory, part Singspeile, and very much a morality play, Die Zauberflöte is not conventional opera in the late 19th century style. Naturalist realism is not what it's meant to be. Cryptic is closer to what it might mean.

Covent Garden: Wagner’s Siegfried, magnificent but elusive

How do you begin to assess Covent Garden’s Siegfried? From a purely vocal point of view, this was a magnificent evening; it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that this was as fine a cast as you are likely to hear anywhere today.

Powerful Monodramas: Zender, Manoury and Schoenberg

The concept of the monologue in opera has existed since the birth of opera itself, but when we come to monodramas - with the exception of Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762) - we are looking at something that originated at the beginning of the twentieth century.

ENO's Salome both intrigues and bewilders

Femme fatale, femme nouvelle, she-devil: the personification of patriarchal castration-anxiety and misogynistic terror of female desire.

In the Company of Heaven: The Cardinall's Musick at Wigmore Hall

Palestrina led from the front, literally and figuratively, in this performance at Wigmore Hall which placed devotion to the saints at its heart, with Saints Peter, Paul, Catherine of Alexandria, Bartholomew and the Virgin Mary all musically honoured by The Cardinall’s Musick and their director Andrew Carwood.

Roberto Devereux in San Francisco

Opera’s triple crown, Donizetti’s tragic queens — Anna Bolena who was beheaded by her husband Henry VIII, their daughter Elizabeth I who beheaded her rival Mary, Queen of Scots and who executed her lover Roberto Devereux.

O18: Queens Tries Royally Hard

Opera Philadelphia is lightening up the fare at its annual festival with a three evening cabaret series in the Theatre of Living Arts, Queens of the Night.

O18 Magical Mystery Tour: Glass Handel

How to begin to quantify the wonderment stirred in my soul by Opera Philadelphia’s sensational achievement that is Glass Handel?

Magic Lantern Tales: darkness, disorientation and delight from Cheryl Frances-Hoad

“It produces Effects not only very delightful, but to such as know the contrivance, very wonderful; so that Spectators, not well versed in Opticks, that could see the various Apparitions and Disappearances, the Motions, Changes and Actions, that may this way be presented, would readily believe them super-natural and miraculous.”

A lunchtime feast of English song: Lucy Crowe and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

The September sunshine that warmed Wigmore Street during Monday’s lunch-hour created the perfect ambience for this thoughtfully compiled programme of seventeenth- and twentieth-century English song presented by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall.

O18: Mad About Lucia

Opera Philadelphia has mounted as gripping and musically ravishing an account of Lucia di Lammermoor as is imaginable.

O18 Poulenc Evening: Moins C’est Plus

In Opera Philadelphia’s re-imagined La voix humaine, diva Patricia Racette had a tough “act” to follow ...

O18: Unsettling, Riveting Sky on Swings

Opera Philadelphia’s annual festival set the bar very high even by its own gold standard, with a troubling but mesmerizing world premiere, Sky on Wings.

Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony — Martyn Brabbins BBCSO

From Hyperion, an excellent new Ralph Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Marcus Farnsworth soloists. This follows on from Brabbins’s highly acclaimed Vaughan Williams Symphony no 2 "London" in the rarely heard 1920 version.

Simon Rattle — Birtwistle, Holst, Turnage, and Britten

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra marked the opening of the 2018-2019 season with a blast. Literally, for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new piece Donum Simoni MMXVIII was an explosion of brass — four trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba, bursting into the Barbican Hall. When Sir Harry makes a statement, he makes it big and bold !

OSJ: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Harem

Opera San Jose kicked off its 35th anniversary season with a delectably effervescent production of their first-ever mounting of Mozart’s youthful opus, The Abduction from the Seraglio.

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):