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Trinity Baroque

For Trinity Baroque’s staging of Saul in St. Paul’s Church, a centerpiece of its increasingly essential annual Twelfth Night festival, director James Darrah and conductor Julian Wachner streamlined Handel’s striking 1738 score considerably, shedding the overture and many numbers (and even a recurring character, the High Priest) but fashioning an entrancing, ultimately moving music drama in the relatively intimate, acoustically excellent space. With the orchestra and — save for key dramatic moments — chorus at one end of the church, the action largely took place on a raised table surrounded by tables at which many spectators sat; others sat or stood in galleries above. No one could have been bored. Robert and Rachel Danes’s apt, handsome costumes (largely black and white) and the precise lighting by Cameron Mock and Emily MacDonald forged a simple yet effective aesthetic, and Darrah deployed his singing actors like chess pieces.

Heard January 3 — the second of two performances — the whole cast merited praise. Christopher Dylan Herbert’s king — jealous and touchy from the get-go and starkly raving soon enough — evoked Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematic Ivan the Terrible, Nikolai Cherkassov, in both the affecting-but-almost-over-the-top-suffering and the youthful, vigorous good looks. For the Lear-like patriarch Charles Jennens’ text evokes, Herbert’s Saul looked an age with his daughters and David and younger than his son Jonathan; even graying his temples might have helped. An effective baritone with decent agility, Herbert strove to provide the power and color his instrument understandably lacked on the lower end of this bass role. 

As his youthful involuntary foil David, Anthony Roth Costanzo gave a musically and dramatically inspired performance. An assured and subtle Handelian, Costanzo’s legato-based countertenor sounded especially entrancing in the hero’s slow numbers:  he launched his initial aria “O King” with the first of several spectacular messe di voce and crafted challenging, stylish cadenzas, keeping the audience raptly at attention. Costanzo owned and inflected the text expertly — though oddly, like the rest of the cast, his words fuzzed over when singing while kneeling, in his case in the remarkable prayer “O Lord, whose mercies numberless”, with its trill-laden flourishes. A detailed actor, he revealed the pain and pride of the successful outsider to the court and made credible and telling the shepherd boy’s erotic attraction to both the princess Michal — whom Darrah wisely had tend David’s bloody wounds — and her brother Jonathan, his staunch advocate. Another countertenor, the stylish Ryland Angel, took the tenor role of Jonathan soundly enough and with abundant expression but with unexpected registration, often baritonal and merely occasional resorts into headiness at phrase endings. In a further Ivan the Terrible touch, Darrah had Saul strangle Jonathan viscerally at the end of Part II. Unorthodox as it was — the death of both father and son in battle is reported in Part III — the choice made visual sense, as Jonathan’s body remained onstage for his sisters and beloved friend to mourn. 

Wachner cast both sisters with fine, emotionally communicative sopranos. Jessica Muirhead’s bright, daring singing lit up the church. With a darker timbre and despite somewhat occluded diction, Marie-Eve Munger offered a moving, technically assured Michal. Alto Melissa Attebury riveted attention as a clarion Witch of Endor

Wachner’s forces by and large sounded splendid, the many marvels of Handelian orchestration —celesta in a chorus, the flute and drum in the famous “Dead March,” the lamenting bassoons under bass-baritone Dashon Burton’s thrillingly intoned Ghost of Samuel — emerged tellingly. The Chorus of Trinity Wall Street displayed fine ensemble with precise cutoffs and proved commendably sonorous throughout. spacer 


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