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Glyndebourne Festival

HIGHLY REGARDED ON THE CONTINENT as a regisseur, and now in charge of the Komische Oper Berlin, the forty-eight-year-old Australian Barrie Kosky originated his second opera production in the U.K. at Glyndebourne on July 23; it was not, strictly speaking, an opera but an oratorio, as Kosky’s choice fell upon Handel’s Saul

As with the rest of Handel’s English works in the genre, this 1739 “oratorio or sacred drama” was never intended to be staged and (in the U.K. at least) could not have been presented other than in concert during the composer’s lifetime, or indeed for more than a century and a half afterwards, due to a longstanding ban upon the representation of Biblical characters on the British stage. 

Kosky’s previous piece created for a U.K. company—his ENO staging of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, back in 2011—created a mixed impression, but Saul, if excessive in places, was overall more intelligent and consistent in its approach. Designed by Kosky’s regular collaborator Katrin Lea Tag, the production was also highly physical, striking in its visual imagery, and vivid in its theatricality.

The members of the Glyndebourne Chorus—whose role in the oratorio, unsurprisingly, is multifarious and crucial—were colorfully dressed and bewigged as fashionable Britons of Handel’s own time, celebrating at the beginning of the piece David’s victory over Goliath at some lavish feast. 

From then on, their contribution to the staging—and not merely the singing—was vital, including in places some complex movement and dance, choreographed by Otto Pichler; in this they were regularly aided, abetted and ultimately comprehensively upstaged by the presence of six dancers working in what was often a popular and contemporary (to the Glyndebourne audience) style. This frolicsome sextet proved, in fact, a little too ubiquitous: here was one of those instances where Kosky’s copious theatrical invention ran somewhat amok. 

Visually entertaining though the show was (perhaps, as suggested above, to a mildly excessive level), it maintained a worthy level of seriousness of purpose, too. In Kosky’s hands, and with baritone Christopher Purves undertaking the title role, the scenes involving the maddened Saul had an almost Lear-like intensity—though Purves’s frequent departure from the letter of Handel’s notes into a kind of Sprechstimme shouting weakened rather than underlined the music’s significance, as such artistic liberties are wont to do. 

There’s an argument to be made, too, as to the nature of the voice required for the title role: its creator, Gustavus Waltz, is always described as a bass, while Purves’s website describes him as a baritone. In terms of color and range, the two are by no means the same.  That said, Purves was always dramatically engaged, even if too often musically wayward. 

Far closer to the Handelian expressive ideal was mellifluous countertenor Iestyn Davies as David, a part he sang with appreciable loveliness of tone, true musicality and both textual and dramatic focus. Lucy Crowe and Sophie Bevan supplied clean and often lyrically beautiful soprano singing as Saul’s daughters Merab and Michal, respectively, while in his U.K. debut,  American tenor Paul Appleby delivered with neatness and circumspection the role of Jonathan—whose close personal relationship to David was amply suggested without being overly underlined. 

Notable among the secondary roles was John Graham-Hall as the Witch of Endor, written by Handel for a tenor (though it is believed that a mezzo-soprano—perhaps Maria Antonia Marchesini—sang it at the first performance). A semi-naked elderly female figure with pendulous dugs, the singer’s realization of the Witch added further grotesquerie to a staging already not short on such incidents; Saul himself voiced the apparition of the risen Samuel—again a departure from Handel’s intentions. 

Yet even with some misjudged moments, the show’s general credibility as a considered attempt to present a visually and intellectually stimulating interpretation of a piece not ideally suited to the stage, but made eminently viable here, was indisputable. Baroque specialist conductor Ivor Bolton gave an assured sense of musical direction to the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the pit, whose playing was rarely exciting, but invariably fluent. —George Hall

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