25 Nov 2011
Saul, Barbican Hall
Handel’s oratorio Saul was the first dramatic oratorio that he wrote with a strong libretto.
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Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
Handel’s oratorio Saul was the first dramatic oratorio that he wrote with a strong libretto.
Charles Jennens compilation, based on biblical sources, created a powerful structure which enabled Handel to create a work which became the first of his English music dramas. The work was performed at the Barbican on Tuesday 21st November by The Sixteen under conductor Harry Christophers, in a concert performance which brought out the essential drama of the piece.
The title role is a remarkable portrait of a conflicted personality, and Handel emphasised this by reducing the characters arias and concentrating on recitative (both secco and accompanied). This means that it can be tricky role to bring off, fatally easy to under play in a concert performance. Peter Purves brought both Handelian bravura and drama to the role, no only acting but reacting, his performance continuing when others were performing, so that Purves showed Saul’s furious reaction to the Israelites praise for David. Purves is perhaps not the tidiest Handelian singer and he did have a tendency to distort the vocal line for expressive purposes. But this was a performance where music and drama went grippingly hand in hand.
The role of David was written for a woman to sing, but in recent years there has been a tendency for it to be sung by counter-tenors. Sarah Connolly demonstrated that in the right hands, the richness, depth and flexibility of a female mezzo-soprano voice can work wonders in the role. Though known for her Handel roles, Connolly’s voice has developed into quite a big instrument. Here she gave a finely moulded, intelligent performance of great beauty.
Robert Murray made an affable Jonathan, with a nicely turned phrase but not quite the purity of line that I would have liked. More importantly, I didn’t feel that there was much drama in the relationship between Murray’s Jonathan and Connolly’s David, though Murray’s individual contributions were finely done.
The drama isn’t perfect, Jennens libretto spends a little too much time on Saul’s daughters Merab and Michal. Elizabeth Atherton as Merab didn’t display quite such a firm line as I would have liked; but the role is a gift for an actress and Atherton displayed a nice line in temperament as the haughty Merab. Joelle Harvey was sweet as Michal, but the role doesn’t really call for much more. Harvey and Connolly duetted delightfully, but even they couldn’t quite convince that two duets in Act 2 is one duet too many.
But Act 2 closed in dramatic fashion with Purves’s powerful delivery of Saul’s accompagnato and a strong closing chorus, ‘O fatal consequence’. The drama continued to be vividly played in the final act, with Christophers encouraging the orchestra to bring out the rawness of Handel’s wonderful scene with the Witch of Endor. All closing with a strongly felt final Elegy.
The smaller roles (of which there are quite a few) were all taken by members of the Sixteen choir, with Jeremy Budd as an edgy, mysterious Witch of Endor, Mark Dobell as the High Priest, Stuart Young as an eerie Ghost of Samuel, Ben Davies as Does, Eamonn Dougan as a strongly characterised Abner and Tom Raskin as the unfortunate Amelkite killed by David at the end. All were strong and more than a credit to the group. Dobell did not always manage to make the rather prosy part of the High Priest interesting, but he was certainly had a good go.
The work was not strictly staged, and everyone sang from scores, but some thought had been put into elements of staging, entrances and exits so that the results contributed immensely to the feeling of drama. Though we had the libretto, diction was uniformly excellent and you hardly needed the words.
The 18 person choir (male altos, female sopranos) brought conviction and enthusiasm to their usually polished delivery. The chorus is called on to sometimes embody the Israelite people and sometimes simply comment; in whichever role the Sixteen was dramatically involved.
Handel’s orchestra is quite a large one, he uses trumpets, trombones and kettledrums. The work has a number of symphonies, describing off-stage action such as battles and funeral corteges so that Handel gives the orchestra a number of solo moments, with some lovely playing from harpist Frances Kelly; Handel also used a Carillon/Glockenspiel to great effect. The Sixteen Orchestra was clearly enthused by the work and by Christophers direction as they played with infection conviction. Christophers went for a rather rich continuo sound, using harp, theorbo, harpsichord and organ as part of the continuo group, which is understandable given the breadth of Handel’s orchestration in the piece. It was performed in Anthony Hicks’s edition.
Christophers ran each act without breaks, so that we had chance to feel how the drama flowed. He encouraged both cast and orchestra to produce vividly dramatic performances and the results were immensely engaging. There is a recording coming out next year and I look forward to it.