I once remarked to John Eliot Gardiner that Rameau did for the musical what Handel did for opera. His indignant reply was: had I seen Hippolyte et Aricie? I had not then but I did see it at Glyndebourne in 2013. It confirmed my view. What I did not know then was that Handel could also write musicals, except that they were instead called oratorios since they could not, as religious subjects, be staged. Two of the composer’s oratorios have been successfully staged as operas: Theodora, by Peter Sellars for Glyndebourne, and Jephtha by Katie Mitchell for Welsh National Opera. A sensation of the 2015 Glyndebourne season was the staging of Handel’s oratorio Saul by the Australian director Barrie Kosky, but with dancers and choreographed chorus this was a musical rather than opera. It was reviewed as an opera for BSECS by: Ivan Ćurković on 28th July 2015. A televised version of the production has now gone on tour in selected cinemas around the UK. Kosky is the acceptable face of avant-garde productions, being featured on the cover of Opera Now Magazine. His production of Shostakovich’s first precocious opera The Nose has just opened at the Royal Opera House, having been seen ‘Live from the Met in HD’ in 2013.
The oratorio Saul takes up the biblical story with the Israelites fêting David after his slaying of the giant Goliath (I Samuel, Chapter 18). David, is welcomed by King Saul, his son Jonathan (who becomes David’s best buddy) and daughters Michal and Merab. David is offered Merab’s hand in marriage but instead he and Michal fall in love. Driven mad by jealousy at the continuing adulation of David, Saul orders Jonathan to kill him. Jonathan pleads for David’s life. Saul appoints David commander of the Israelite army in the hope he will be killed in battle. Once again victorious, David has again to escape Saul’s rage, which leads Saul to attempt to kill Jonathan when he defends David. In disguise, Saul consults the Witch of Endor who summons the spirit of Samuel to predict the defeat of Israel by the Philistines and the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. Once more David comes to the rescue of the Israelites.
The proceedings open with the celebration of David’s slaying of Goliath, with a full chorus of Israelites enjoying refreshment at a large table loaded with food and drink. The head of the giant grotesquely rolls around at the front of the stage. Immediately we were drawn into a cinematic experience; that it was actually being acted out on stage became irrelevant. It is regrettable that no credit was given in the cinema handout to the TV direction (an omission of which The Met in HD was also guilty for a very long time)
We were introduced to the main characters in a star-studded cast. Saul was played by Christopher Purves, David by Iestyn Davies, and Jonathan by Paul Appleby. Saul’s daughters were played by two of my favourite singers: the snooty Merab by Lucy Crowe and Michal by Sophie Bevan. Sadly, they had little to sing but both elegantly filled their roles, both adept at holding the audience’s attention when not singing. Other key roles were performed by Benjamin Hulett as the High Priest and John Graham-Hall as the Witch of Endor.
All the men entered into the spirit of the production, characterised by sexual ambivalence, in a very tactile performance – much fondling of heads in close-up, for example, hinting at the ambiguity in the relationship between David and Jonathan. Only the girls appeared ‘straight’. Extreme was the Witch of Endor with a male head but with pendulous lactating woman’s breasts which Saul suckled in his underpants (the ‘disguise’ of the script).
The conductor was Ivor Bolton with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The creative team under Kosky was designer Katrin Lea Tag, choreographer Otto Pitcler assisted by Silvano Marraffa, and lighting designer Joachim Klein.
In the cold light of the written word this staging seems outrageous. But it worked and provided thought-provoking entertainment. Above all, Handel was not lost and proved once again that his dramatic music is robust enough to stand up to the efforts of even the most extreme director.
© PETER SCHOFIELD
The 2015 Glyndebourne production of Saul was screened at cinemas across the UK from October to December 2016 as part of Glyndebourne on Tour 2016. The production is now also available on DVD and Blu-Ray.