Handel introduced the form of the oratorio to Britain, and produced many examples based on Biblical narratives – Israel in Egypt, Samson, Solomon, and so on; but he could never have anticipated their performance on stage – something banned on religious grounds during his lifetime.
Nowadays opera companies present such works with impunity: Glyndebourne previously had a hit with Peter Sellars’ staging of Theodora, first seen back in 1996. This production of Saul by the dynamic Australian director Barrie Kosky looks set to repeat its success.
It’s not a perfect show, however. Kosky gives what is a stern morality tale a strong element of vibrant visual entertainment, though sometimes the six dancers involved in Otto Pichler’s showbizzy choreography feel surplus to requirements, and occasionally an air of flippancy creeps into what is essentially a thoughtful, articulate and visually arresting show. Katrin Lea Tag’s costumes conjure the mid-18th-century period of the work’s creation, and the central narrative of the replacement of the troubled and desperate King Saul by his young protege and subsequently popular rival David is conveyed with clarity and purpose.
There is strength and imagination in several of the central performances, too, though not all of them work on every level. Iestyn Davies’ David, however, incontestably does: he sings and acts the young warrior with comprehensive distinction.
Though the talented baritone throws everything he has at the role, Christopher Purves’ Saul is less consistent; arguably a true bass is needed for the part, and the performer’s propensity to shout rather than to sing the text tends to undermine its impact instead of strengthening it: at times he and other characters are also encouraged to add new spoken words to the text.
But there’s considerable vocal virtue in Lucy Crowe’s Merab and Sophie Bevan’s Michal, while Ivor Bolton draws fluent and committed playing from the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.