25 Nov 2011
Saul, Barbican Hall
Handel’s oratorio Saul was the first dramatic oratorio that he wrote with a strong libretto.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
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.