Saul by George Frideric Handel. A Dramatic Oratorio in three acts.
Directed by Barrie Kosky. Conducted by Erin Helyard. Costume and Set design. Katrin Lea Tag. Lighting. Joachim Kleein. Choreographer Otto Pichler. Cast: Saul: Christopher Purves. David: Chrstopher Lowrey. Jonathan: Adrian Strooper. Merab: Mary Bevan. Michal: Taryn Fiebig. Witch of Endor: Kanen Breen. High Priest, Abner, Amalekite, Doeg. Stuart Jackson. With the State Opera Chorus and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. A Glyndebourne Festival Production. The Festival Theatre. Adelaide Festival Centre. March 3 – 9 2017. Adelaide Festival.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
More opulent than a Peter Greenaway film. More shocking than a Ken Russell movie. Starker than a Samuel Beckett landscape. Visually Barrie Kosky’s production of Gearge Frideric Handel’s dramatic oratorio is a masterpiece, a cornucopia of visual, theatrical, musical and choral delights, rich in its splendor, powerful in its drama and stirring in its orchestration. But it is Kosky’s vision that gives this story of Israel’s first king and his envy obsessed relationship with David the Goliath slayer its supreme realization upon the stage.
Born of Handel’s inspiration with an original libretto by George Jessen in 1738, Saul is essentially a dramatic fiction, a powerful tale of Saul’s succumbing to hubris and eventual death upon the battlefield. In Act One we are introduced to the egotistical Saul ( sung with such rich bass baritone by Christopher Purves) and the youthful hero David (Christopher Lowrey) Saul’s son Jonathan befriends the commoner Jonathan and Saul offers his daughters Merab (Mary Bevan) and Michal (Taryn Flebig) to David as a reward for his victory over Goliath, whose giant decapitated head adorns the stage in front of a beautifully created tableau vivant of the large chorus in opulent 18th century regalia. It bursts into a scene of immense jubilation only to gradually decline into all-consuming envy and eventual madness. Handel’s drama and Kosky’s brilliant recreation of the tragic oratorio hark back to the classic tragedies of Ancient Greece. Saul’s hubris is the source of madness and death, expressed in the haunting and dark Death March in Act Three.
I recount aspects of the drama, not so much to tell the story but to reveal the fertile ground for Kosky’s vivid imagination. This is not a biblical tale per se, nor is it an account of Jewish history, although the characters are drawn from these sources. This is high drama, reaching out to grasp emotion, shock, horrify and instruct the intellect, and, like all great art reveal the world unto the beholder and the beholder unto themselves.
At frst I find Kosky’s Saul disturbing in its apparent contradiction. Handel’s baroque composition initially appears too lyrical for the drama. The introduction of homosexuality between Jonathan and David appears somewhat presumptive. Christopher Lowrey’s sublime counter tenor rendition of his arias appear unbecoming a valiant hero and triumphant victor. And yet it is the very essence of such antithesis and contradiction that heightens the drama carrying the audience through Kosky’s theatrical realization of images of opulence and horrific starkness upon the ashen stage or the grim battlefield of dead bodies and cradled heads of the dead Saul and Jonathan. Handel and Kosky, aided by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Erin Helyard, tug at the emotions, focusing our hearts and minds on every detail of theatricality and musicality.
It is worth noting that State Opera has assisted to provide singers for the large chorus. It is a powerhouse of Kosky’s masterpiece. They sing, act, dance, pose and provide the commentary on the action in the Greek tradition of story-telling. Every aspect of the singing by Chorus and Principals is sheer joy, and the Adelaide Festival is to be applauded for bringing this world-renowned production of Handel’s oratorio and Kosky’s masterful staging of the piece to Adelaide Festival audiences.