Photos – Bill Cooper
There is something magical about being in the theatre. The magic is particularly undeniable when the performance leaves the audience surprised, delighted and gasping for more. The opening of George Frideric Handel’s Saul at the Adelaide Festival was one of these rare occasions. This was the premiere of the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival production’s successful Australian revival.
Although marketed as an opera, Saul is not an opera, not like the serious operas Handel composed in Italian. It is a dramatic oratorio relating the events surrounding Saul’s demise as the first king of the Kingdom of Israel and Judah, and David’s rise to power according to the First Book of Samuel (Chapters 16 – 31) and the poem Davideis by Abraham Cowley. Universal themes and common human emotions interweave in this fable. The characters are multidimensional and complex.
Saul has a richer structural palette than baroque opera seria. Besides beautiful arias and dramatic recitatives, there is a substantial amount of choruses and unusual instrumentation that lend themselves to intriguing theatrical possibilities. Moreover, this is one of the best books in the stage literature, and it is in English, not in a foreign language or translation. Handel composed his music to fit precisely with Charles Jennen’s poetry. The poetry is precise in the music and poignant.
Directed by Australian-born director Barrie Kosky, this rendition of Handel’s and Jennen’s Saul rests in an acute awareness of dance rhythms, rhetorical emphasis and the expression of emotions. Kosky has a solid reputation as one of the best opera directors in the world because he is courageous to re-imagine how stories are presented in the theatre away from canons and conventions. He is sometimes viewed as an enfant terrible, and this work was eagerly expected, perhaps with trepidations. If any, they were quickly diffused by the opening chorus – a baroque-inspired hyper feast for the senses, punctuated by Otto Pichler’s kinky choreography and Katrin Lea Tag’s costumes.
Kosky has been able to draw out of the ensemble a heightened sensibility to word meaning and articulation that has produced a plausible and vibrant musical and visual interpretation that rises up to the ideal of baroque theatre to move the audience deeply. In this production, musical and theatrical aspects are stretched beyond what the performers may think is possible. It is physically demanding and emotionally draining for the singers, and it must have been much more time-consuming to prepare, but it is much more efficient than the stand-and-sing practice which does not work anymore for easily-bored modern audiences.
The externalisation of the drama through the text is expressed through much more word articulation and emphasis than we are typically accustomed to in the opera house. What is more, exclamations, breaths and added spoken lines, whether coming from the singers or dancers, infuse the musical texture with emotion. When Saul stands downstage centre, looks at the audience and begs them to pay attention to him in a spoken voice, it is unnerving.
A winning ensemble of visiting international stars and Australian musicians and singers under the baton of Dr Erin Helyard created a luscious period sound that included the pleasures of listening to baroque instruments including a small organ which emerged on stage at the beginning of the second half with Helyard playing.
Having portrayed Saul in the original Glyndebourne production, English bass-baritone Christopher Purves’ performance was a sheer display of mastery, albeit one that is more typical of actors than opera singers. The physicality of his portrayal of fear, envy, rage and madness combined with a rich vocal sonority and commanding declamation and gestures was thrilling. English tenor Stuart Jackson’s performance of the court jester, an ingenious amalgamation of multiple roles, was most alluring with its stylised movement and facial expression, rich tone and perfect declamation, not to mention dancing ability. American countertenor Christopher Lowrey’s rendition of David was poised while his voice had an Orphic charge in ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’.
English soprano Mary Bevan portrayed Merab’s changing attitude toward David from total rejection to genuine respect, singing the aria ‘Author of peace’ divinely. Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig quickly became the darling of the audience. Australian tenor Adrian Stooper, in the role of Saul’s son, created well Jonathan’s inner conflict with a lovely vocal line but did not push his emotional expression or declamation as far as the rest of the cast. Australian tenor Kanen Breen was very believable as the witch, who attracted the most overt audience reactions while emerging from the ground in a hermaphrodite form and nourishing Saul from her old bosom.
If one had to pick an Australian chorus that is capable of singing Handel’s fugues while performing intricate stage movements, it should have been the SA State Opera Chorus. This is an exceptional group of versatile performers boasting of spatial awareness and physical endurance along with a beautifully balanced ensemble sound. The forty of them on stage had a commanding presence throughout the entire performance.
The Festival Theatre was full of distinguished celebrities and politicians, the crème de la crème of local society and interstate visitors who had come especially for the event. They were following the unfolding performance eagerly, freely responding – here with a gulp and there with laughter, applauding and shouting loudly at the end.
This is certainly another euphoric reception of the Glyndebourne Festival’s Saul. The performers and entire revival team and crew should be congratulated for delivering such an innovative production to such a high standard. The festival’s curators have hit the target by selecting this piece and ensemble, knowing that this will influence how baroque opera is performed in Australia.
2017 Adelaide Festival
George Frideric Handel
Director Barrie Kosky
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Dates: 3, 5, 7 & 9 March 2017
Bookings: BASS 131 246 | adelaidefestival.com.au
A Glyndebourne Festival Opera production, originally performed in the Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Presented by the Adelaide Festival in association with the State Opera of South Australia, with support from Adelaide Festival Centre.