Ivor Bolton, Barrie Kosky, Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies, Paul Appleby, Lucy Crowe, Sophie Bevan, Benjamin Hulett, John Graham-Hall
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Very much old fashioned as they might be as a form of music, Handel's oratorios have proven to still have tremendous vitality in modern performances. More informed use of specialised period instruments in the hands of skilled musicians helps and some fine singers can bring the wonder of the music to life, but the works benefit just as much from efforts to make them visually appealing as stage works. The nature of the Biblical origins of those stories and the format Handel developed in the oratorio present some difficulties on that front, but Glyndebourne's acclaimed 2015 production of Saul is a perfect example of what can be done with an imaginative director on board.
As far as the musical performance of the work goes, there's little cause for concern. The composer's first English oratorio Saul has a tremendous character of its own, Handel by-passing the limitations that the opera format had placed on him by keeping arias short and free from repetition or da capo, using a larger scale orchestration than previously and introducing new instrumental colour, punctuating the work with short instrumental "Symphony" passages and high-impact choruses. Even if it wasn't written to be performed like an opera, there's a lot of dramatic colour in Saul and Ivor Bolton conducts the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment with all the necessary dynamic, capturing the sheer exuberance of the heightened passions while at the same time retaining the beauty and subtlety of more noble qualities expressed in the work.
Director Barrie Kosky's approach to the staging is a little less straightforward. The Australian director, who is also the Intendant at the Komische Oper in Berlin, operates in a style that is very much his own. A distinct, individual approach however works well in translating and putting across all the colour of Baroque opera for a modern audience who might otherwise find its structure and conventions dry, unappealing and unapproachable. Kosky's productions for Rameau and Monteverdi consequently can divide opinion, since they are unlikely to meet any preconceived ideas you might have for how those works should be staged. There's not much dramatic action in opera seria or in an oratorio like Saul, so an imaginative response is precisely what is required here.
Coming from the Biblical story of the Book of Samuel, the story of David and Saul is a familiar one, but not one that you would immediately consider lending itself to great music theatre, much less a high concept reinterpretation of it. Handel, with his librettist Charles Jennens however really give the story a colourful setting, with a particularly explosive opening and a magnificent finale. Barrie Kosky's approach seems to be simply to put those musical flourishes into visual terms, but not entirely in abstraction, retaining as much as possible of the essence of the emotional sentiments and the dramatic situation that provokes them in order for it all to remain meaningful.
You might think never think of the opening of Saul in the context of a huge feast on a banquet table before a colourfully dressed group of Israelites in 18th century costume, but there's no question that Kosky's vision for this setting entirely gets across the essence of Handel's music. It even invites you to listen to the music more closely to hear how the sentiments of joy are mixed with horror and fear at the sight of the decapitated head of Goliath lying gruesomely before them. Katrin Lea Tag's set designs don't elaborate on that a great deal over the three acts, remaining simple and expressive, but Kosky's finds other extravagant, surprising and grotesque ways of putting the dynamic across, using dance, movement, shouted interjections and shock imagery.
All of this is justified by the exuberance and extravagance that is found in Handel's composition itself - or if not justified, it at least abiding by the spirit of work. It might not appear to follow the stage directions of the libretto to the letter (although strictly there are no real stage directions to be followed in an oratorio), it still manages to adhere to the essential themes and intent of the work. Joyous celebration at the start of Saul is followed by anger, jealousy and love complications and ends in tragedy, mourning and reflection, but Handel no longer has to compartmentalise these sentiments according to old opera seria rules in the musical construction he develops for his oratorio.
That richness is reflected in the musical interpretation at Glyndebourne under Ivor Bolton, and it certainly finds an equivalent visual representation under Kosky's direction, but it's also matched on a performance level by the singing. Handel's music is a driving force in itself, but the dramatic emphasis that it requires often comes from the strength of individual performances. Unquestionably, it's Saul who is the centre of all the dramatic conflict in this oratorio, and it could hardly have a more driven Saul than the interpretation given here by Christopher Purves. Under Kosky's direction he's given full rein here to delve deep into his character's torment, and Purves expresses that fully in the beauty and nuance of the voice as well as in the very physical performance.
Saul then provides a solid core of anger, jealousy and hatred that inspires differing reactions and responses from all the other characters. Despite being charged with arranging for the death of David, Jonathan's inner compassion and his friendship with David overrides any hatred and jealousy that Saul tries to sow between them. David's response to Saul's actions are likewise more reflective and compassionate, and both men's character finds perfect expression in the performances of Iestyn Davies's lyrical countertenor David and Paul Appleby's noble Jonathan. The roles of Saul's daughters Michal and Merab are less well established, but the more sympathetic Michal comes across better in Sophie Bevan's performance, her undisguised glee at Saul's change of heart over her love for David adding another level of tone and amusement that fits in well with the intentions of the production. The gorgeous chorus writing that also plays such an important part in the overall tone of the work is superbly handed by The Glyndebourne Chorus.